The Impact of Employee Disengagement

What is employee disengagement?

Employee disengagement is rampant because people spend at least 45 hours of the 168 hours a week at their place of work.

The expectation is that those hours should be meaningful to employees, that employees are achieving their goals, and that they experience positive emotions while at work.

Research by Gallup defines three levels of employee engagement:

  • Engaged staff members are enthusiastic and contribute to the success of the organisation. 14% of employees are “engaged” according to Gallup.
  • Not engaged staff members do the bare minimum that is required of them. According to Gallup, most of the workforce (71%) is “not engaged”.
  • Actively disengaged staff members show that they are unhappy at work. According to Gallup, 15% of workers are “actively disengaged”.

This means that globally (142 countries) only 14% of the workforce is emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organisations every day. The rest are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.

Actively disengaged employees continue to outnumber engaged employees by nearly two to one. This implies that at the global level, work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfilment.

“It also means countless workplaces worldwide are less productive and less safe than they could be and are less likely to create badly needed new jobs,” the 2013 Gallup State of the Global Workplace survey found.

It’s possible for managers to motivate people to put more effort into their jobs. However, employee disengagement doesn’t occur in a vacuum – it’s usually caused by external factors that must be understood before action is taken.

The South African employee disengagement picture

Things are even worse in South Africa. Only 9% of the workforce is engaged, 46% are not engaged and 45% are actively disengaged.

East Asia has the lowest proportion of engaged employees in the world, at 6%. The regional finding is driven predominantly by results from China, where 6% of employees are engaged in their jobs.

Kerstin Jatho, positive psychology life coach at 4Seeds, says that employees choose how they approach work.

People choose to be engaged by bringing their head, hand, and heart to work. Very often people only bring their head and hands to work,” she says. 

To bring your heart to work, you really must believe in the values and culture of the organisation. Your work really must excite you”.

Being proud of your company certainly helps with the choice to be engaged or not.

The Gallup survey singles out the mining industry in South Africa. The industry, an important source of employment in the country, has been plagued by violent and destabilising labour unrest.

Jatho says there are many sectors where there is distrust between the workforce and the company. The mining industry has been particularly problematic because of all the players and the type of work involved.

This has not really changed, but people have. It is no longer enough to work at the same company until retirement and to simply earn a salary.

She says it is easy to spot the engaged worker from the disengaged one. Jatho tells of the cleaning staff at a hospital who regularly changed the pictures hanging on the walls of the wards.

When asked by one of the nurses why they were doing this, they said they’d done it to alleviate patients’ boredom, making sure that they didn’t have to lie in bed for days looking at the same pictures.

“We all have a purpose, even if it is only to help others achieve something,” says Jatho.

It will be a fallacy to believe that everybody can be completely engaged in the workplace.

However, if the number of disengaged people can be helped to become semi-engaged, imagine the difference it will make.

Employee disengagement is expensive

“Remember, disengaged employees are expensive. You are paying a 100% salary, but you are not getting 100% output,” says Jatho.

Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs the US in the region of $450bn to $550bn per year. In Germany, it ranges from €112bn to €138bn ($151bn to $186bn) per year.

In the UK, actively disengaged employees cost the country between £52bn and £70bn ($83bn and $112bn) per year.

Engaged employees are the ones who are most likely to drive innovation, growth, and revenue that their companies desperately need, Gallup’s research found.

They visualize new products and services, generate new ideas, attract new customers, and ultimately help spur the economy into generating more good jobs.

What causes employee disengagement?

Unsatisfactory salary

Do we know that unsatisfactory pay is one of the main reasons why people leave their jobs, but does financial compensation also influence engagement levels? For people who believe they’re being paid unfairly – absolutely.

Money-related stress contributes to disengagement in the workplace.

If employees aren’t earning enough, they are less likely to be enthusiastic.

However, there are other factors besides salary that influence workforce engagement levels.

Lack of career development causes disengagement

Most people are motivated by the opportunity to learn new skills and grow in their role, so when this desire isn’t being met employees may lose interest in their jobs – sometimes to the extent that they’re willing to resign.

In Australia, 60% of surveyed workers quit because they weren’t given the chance to grow in their roles.

Sense of purpose

A sense of purpose is also crucial for keeping staff switched on and involved. Psychologist Daniel Pink notes that people crave roles that satisfy their need for “autonomy, mastery, and purpose”. This makes sense, given that disengaged employees are often those who don’t feel challenged or who aren’t involved in exciting projects.

One company analysed over 35 million survey responses to find out why people lose interest in their jobs and found that productivity decreases when staff don’t have a sense of accomplishment or purpose (as reported by Forbes).

Poor managers are the main cause of employee disengagement

“The single biggest decision you make in your job – bigger than all the rest – is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits – nothing.”

Ineffective management is a leading cause of employee disengagement. There are many forms of poor leadership, but research shows that “absentee leaders” erode staff satisfaction the most.

These are managers who are psychologically absent and therefore fail to build meaningful connections with their teams. This leads to high levels of stress and low employee morale – and, eventually, active disengagement.

Top complaints

An absentee boss is even worse than an abusive one. Harris Poll surveyed 1000 working adults and found the top complaints about management revolve around weak communication and management. This typically means they do not:

  • Make time to meet with employees
  • Provide constructive feedback and support
  • Give recognition or acknowledgement of positive contributions
  • Provide clear directions
  • Do not make decisions timeously
  • No alignment with the company’s goals and objectives
  • Align employee goals with the company’s vision, purpose, mission, and goals 

Often, applicants who land managerial roles have proven hard skills (e.g., an impressive resume of business transformations and change management) but lack the required power or soft skills (e.g., the ability to identify employee needs and strengths, and the ability to rally a team around a cause).

Studies have shown that when managers help employees to set performance goals, employee engagement reaches an incredible 69%. If managers do not help employees with setting these goals, 53% will consider themselves to be disengaged at work.

Stressful work environment

“While stress seems to be a recognised term in the workplace, the negative outcomes of stressed and overworked employees cannot be underestimated. Workplace burnout is not only harmful to the employee at hand, but it also negatively impacts the company. Stress can lead to less productivity, low staff morale, and increased sick leave, which all impact a business’s bottom line.”  – Nicole Gorton, Director at Robert Half Australia.

On a global scale, nearly one-quarter of employees are sabotaging their health by working excessively. Workers aren’t immune to this problem – 13% of workers are reportedly putting 50 hours or more into their paid jobs each week.

Even people who work the standard hours find it difficult to tune out at home, thanks to mobile technology that gives us constant digital access to the office.

While the benefits of working from home are undeniable (e.g., increased work-life balance), remote working during a pandemic – a period of immense stress – is a different beast. COVID-19 impacted all areas of well-being: social, financial, mental, and physical, which causes increased stress.

The pressure on remote workers to perform is high, coupled with an increased reliance on technology can create an “always on” mentality. Workers are citing “fatigue” from too much digital “facetime” (e.g., video conferencing and instant messaging), which results in burnout.

It’s important for employers to recognise and acknowledge the factors that may be adding to the stress levels of their employees and be willing to adapt so that employees feel valued and remain engaged.

Managers put the business performance on the line when they ignore the detrimental impact that stress has on workplace satisfaction and staff involvement.

Employee assistance programs (EAPs) proved their worth during COVID-19, as they were used to support not just employees who were struggling but also their families.

Every organisation should ensure they offer their workforce access to an EAP. Not supporting your workforce may risk mass disengagement and dissatisfaction.

Employee misfits contribute to employee disengagement

Employees are an organisation’s biggest asset, but they can also be the main reason for its failure – depending on how engaged or disengaged they are.

Although it’s impossible for managers to hire the best person every time, a good track record goes a long way toward creating high-performing teams. Unfortunately, most companies consistently make bad hiring choices because they fail to effectively evaluate their candidates’ attitudes.

Is it fair to blame staff for their own disengagement? In many cases, yes.

Personality drives workforce engagement variables 50% of the time. A meta-analysis of almost 45,000 global participants looked at the degree that character traits influence job satisfaction and immersion, and found that people who are optimistic, hard-working, and outgoing are more likely to work proactively.

However, it isn’t always as black and white as that. Wider contextual areas such as organisational culture and job characteristics influence engagement levels.

This means that recruiters shouldn’t make hiring choices based on charisma alone.

Recruiters should also recognise the advantages of hiring different personality types; they shouldn’t automatically discount applicants who don’t seem enthusiastic, as they could bring other positive traits to the table.

The organisation fails to adapt to change

The nature of work has evolved around the world because of technological advances, urbanisation, globalisation, and countless other factors. Growing numbers of people now prioritise a strong work-life balance and flexibility.

Even before the coronavirus, a poll by Hays showed that nearly 90% of managers believe that flexible arrangements help to attract and retain staff by improving job satisfaction. They understand that energised employees are will be engaged and productive.

Workplace flexibility is attractive to today’s workers. In fact, another study found that 92% of employees think flexible work is a “must-have” or “nice-to-have”.

Therefore, organisations that hold onto antiquated practices are showing their employees that they don’t trust them to manage their own time. It’s this distrust that heightens employee disengagement and turnover.

However, since the outbreak of COVID-19, the attitude towards working from home has changed.

The coronavirus has forced the world’s largest work-from-home experiment, and for many, it has been successful. Employers are learning how productive their employees can be when remote working and employees are learning how quickly they can adapt to working from home.

Foresee employee disengagement through vigilant leadership

Jatho says leaders must be vigilant to notice when they are “losing” a worker and have a discussion with them: “The honest conversation with the employee is not about why the person is not performing or threatening him with disciplinary action. That will only lead to more disengagement.” 

According to her, bosses should establish where the person got lost and what can be done to bring them back, whether they are still in the right place in the company, or whether it is better to part ways.

Leaders often shy away from these honest conversations – hoping the situation will resolve itself. Normally it does not,” she comments.

Finally, managers are ultimately responsible for employee disengagement

Gallup’s research has found that managers are primarily responsible for their employees’ engagement levels.

Organisations should coach managers to take an active role in building engagement plans with their employees, hold managers accountable, track their progress, and ensure they continuously focus on emotionally engaging their subordinates.

Work takes up a huge portion of our days – and our lives. It is, therefore, imperative that work is as positive and as fulfilling as possible.

How to test employee disengagement rates 

To better understand the engagement levels of your workforce, it is important to collect data directly from the employees.  

Remember, however, that if you are not ready to act on your employee feedback, better don’t ask! 

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