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Disengaged employees: signs, cost & how to motivate them

15 min read
Disengaged employees are a real problem for any organization. They impact productivity, morale, and profitability. Here’s how to spot the signs of employee disengagement, and what to do to re-engage your people.


Author: Ruth D’Alessandro

Subject Matter Expert: Dr. Vanessa Kowollik

We’ve all encountered disengaged employees in our working lives and our personal lives. The receptionist who can’t be bothered to stop scrolling social media on their phone to greet us; the yawning shop floor worker who rolls their eyes when we ask whether they could check the stock room for an item; the manager who still ‘hasn’t had time’ to check over a piece of our work.

Our research over the last four years has shown that employee engagement has been relatively stable at between 66-68%, but this still means that employee disengagement has remained static at around the 32-34% mark. That’s a lot of employees not working at their best. What can we do to move that needle?

What is a disengaged employee?

There are actually two types of disengaged employees:

  • Disengaged
  • Actively disengaged

Disengaged employees turn up for work each day (or not – more on this later) but don’t really want to be there. They lack passion, joy, energy, and commitment for their jobs, and are apathetic – unenthusiastically doing their contractual bare minimum, or quiet quitting.

When disengaged employees become more toxic, unhappy, resentful and underperforming, they become actively disengaged employees. They have no pride in the organization they work for, couldn’t care less if it is successful or not, and feel no emotional commitment to it. They may openly dislike the organization so much that they are vocal about it, badmouthing it at every opportunity. These actively disengaged people may hold a grudge, go out of their way to be disruptive and even sabotage operations.

Free eBook: Designing a world-class EX program that attracts and retains talent

Signs of disengaged employees

Some signs of disengaged employees are very obvious:

  • Poor attitude to the team and/or customers
  • Lethargy or low energy
  • Moaning or making cynical wisecracks
  • Being absent frequently without good reason
  • Call in sick more often and have more accidents at work
  • More ‘shrinkage’ of office supplies or products
  • Being constantly late into the office, or unavailable if working remotely
  • Nipping out for more breaks than usual
  • Constant scrolling on their phones
  • Employees ‘killing time’
  • Low productivity
  • Low work quality
  • Increase in customer complaints

Others are more subtle:

  • Being quieter within the team than usual, or withdrawing from it
  • Showing no enthusiasm or excitement at achievements
  • Avoidance of responsibility or challenge
  • Little appetite for learning or development
  • Continually pester their manager or monopolize their time
  • Less open to using AI (artificial intelligence) technologies at work

employee sentiment with AI

The important thing to remember here is that employees rarely become disengaged without a reason. An enthusiastic, passionate new hire doesn’t anticipate becoming a bored, overworked, disillusioned employee. Something has gone wrong somewhere along the line to disengage them.

The cost of disengaged employees

Disengaged employees come at a price – in both financial terms, and the less quantifiable costs of affecting others in the workforce, and even company reputation. Disengagement can be contagious, demotivating team members who were previously enthusiastic about their work, and affecting their productivity. A drop in productivity in one department can have knock-on effects in others, and before you know it, spreads through the organization.

According to the Canada Human Resources Centre, unhappy workers cost the North American business economy over $350 billion per year in lost productivity.

Another study, by the Queen’s School of Business and Gallup, demonstrated that disengaged workers logged:

  • 37% higher absenteeism
  • 49% more accidents
  • 60% more errors and defects

than engaged employees. Organizations with low employee engagement scores experienced:

  • 18% lower productivity
  • 16% lower profitability
  • 37% lower job growth
  • 65% lower share price over time.

Why employees become disengaged

There are many reasons why employees become disenchanted with their work. Classic issues include a toxic company culture, excessive workload, micromanagement, lack of development opportunities, and poor leadership.

Our most recent research, published in our 2024 Employee Experience Trends Report, uncovered some fascinating, and some rather shocking causes of employee disengagement:

Poor onboarding

Our research found that new employees with less than six months of tenure have lower engagement, wellbeing and inclusion, and the lowest intent to stay (three years or more) at their organization – just 38% versus 65% overall:

In past years, employees would remain at a higher level of engagement for at least a year in a new job. Something has gone wrong, and we found it’s the onboarding experience.

employee engagements metrics

When employers were hiring in high volumes a few years ago, they were hyper-focused on delivering a great candidate experience. Now, with the economic downturn, fewer hires are being made and organizations are allocating their resources elsewhere – leading to a poorer onboarding experience.

New recruits, especially remote workers, are missing out on three critical onboarding factors:

  1. Social interaction that helps them acclimatize, build human connections, navigate the workplace culture, and effectively ramp up.
  2. Growth from day one; keen, new employees crave training and formal development programs, but for many, these opportunities are scarce to non-existent.
  3. Exclusion from annual engagement surveys: when new employees have been working for, say, three months or less when the annual survey is distributed, they’re not considered experienced enough to offer a well-rounded opinion or experience rating, so they’re just not asked.

Neglect of frontline workers

Frontline employees probably make up the majority of your workforce, and are squarely placed in the middle between the organization and customers or public. Those frontline employees, who are expected to serve customers and the needs of the business are the least appreciated and understood, and are struggling with lack of recognition, growth and professional development opportunities, and low satisfaction with financial rewards:

customer satisfaction metrics

Frontline workers are unhappy, and crying out for help. They’re:

  • not getting their basic needs met from their organizations
  • lacking the support they need to do a great job and a voice to drive improvements
  • less trusting of leadership, and don’t feel empowered to speak their minds

Unsupported managers

Managers are essential to employee engagement. They are the people who know their team, how they function, how to support them and help them adapt to new ways of working. Yet in 2023, our research suggests that 37% of managers suffered from burnout symptoms.

It’s no surprise that 75% of people who leave their jobs do so because of their manager, and it costs an organization 6 to 9 months of an employee’s salary to replace them. Now, it’s essential to put the spotlight onto managers and see where they can be supported and empowered to, in turn, support and engage their teams – and themselves.

Hybrid work

It’s been nearly four years since the pandemic reshaped the world of work pretty much overnight, but organizations are still trying to sort out their return to office (RTO) policies. For some employees, particularly those with caring responsibilities, fully remote works best; for others, such as new hires, fully in-office helps them make connections and understand the organization better; and still others prefer a mix of both. Yet forcing employees into a way of working that doesn’t suit them can be a cause of disengagement.

Our research found that there were differences in engagement reported by employees working 1-3 days from home (77%) versus those working 5 days in the office (60%) and those working solely remotely (71%):

employee engagement days in office

It seems that there’s no longer a ‘one size fits all’ approach to work, and employers need to be more nuanced and flexible about how their people work best.

How to motivate disengaged employees

Rebuild and reprioritize onboarding

An effective onboarding program ensures that new employees are set up to deliver value to the organization successfully. They need to be welcomed, resourced, included, made to feel they belong, trained and developed, and frequently checked in with.

Your onboarding program needs to have its own, dedicated listening mechanism for hearing new hires’ in-the-moment feedback so you can address issues as they arise.

Growth and development is a priority need for employees, but currently ranks near the bottom (20 out of 25 themes) in terms of how well organizations are acting on this need. A full development program is clearly a ‘nice to have’, but managers can help new hires see that they have a career and a future with the organization by making development a topic from day one in 1:1 meetings.

Give leaders frontline experience

All too often, leaders are in their ‘ivory tower’ of Head Office, disconnected with the experiences of frontline workers on the shop floor. When leaders take the time to ‘get their hands dirty’ to understand, experience and connect with what the frontline goes through every day – particularly in relation to their feedback – workers are more likely to feel seen, listened to, and trust leadership more.

Treat managers as the heroes and heroines of employee engagement

It’s tough being a manager. One study by Qualtrics found that 43% of managers feel more pressure to produce results than they did a year ago. Expectations are high because it’s managers who are the critical link between team engagement and business outcomes.

Managers play a critical role in creating positive employee experiences. The best managers are those who check in frequently, listen to their team, help them understand responsibilities, establish goals, and are more likely to increase employee performance and employee engagement levels.

Research shows that what employees really want is good managers. 76% of people would prefer a role with the best manager and the worst workplace flexibility over a job with the best workplace flexibility and the worst manager (all other factors being equal). Job candidates say that a good manager with whom they’ll have a great relationship is the most influential factor in choosing a job.

Empower your managers by giving them the means to:

  • Ask employees what’s preventing them doing their job, and what they can do, as their manager, to help.
  • Enable employees (especially the frontline) with resources and processes that help them effectively meet customers’ needs. This will help drive engagement.
  • Listen to what their employees are telling them, then drive and communicate action based on that feedback. Demonstrate to workers the changes made as a result of their feedback.
  • Advocate for their people: represent their employees’ views on the business by communicating their wants and needs to senior leadership.
  • Get to know their team members’ unique skills and abilities, and work with them to find ways to apply these attributes in their roles.
  • Encourage their team to share ideas about new and better ways of doing things.

Develop flexible work plans for your teams

It looks like hybrid working is here to stay. Leaders and managers will need to develop flexible work plans to keep employees engaged – but they’ll need help to find out what works and what doesn’t, and these findings will be as unique as your organization.

You’ll need to:

  • Ask your people what they think the team needs to function, and what they need to do their best work
  • Work out how much time people need together to deliver the outcomes your team needs by looking at the current work styles in your organization, and outcomes they achieve
  • Create flexible workplace policies and structures that allow employees to achieve those outcomes
  • Set minimum expectations for your teams, but with the autonomy to make adjustments that work for them
  • Revisit the work plans regularly; what’s working now might change

How Qualtrics® can help re-engage disengaged employees

The key to engaging employees is feedback. Engagement is a feeling – it’s how much an employee is committed to helping their organization achieve its goals, demonstrated by how employees think, feel, and act, as well as the emotional connection employees feel towards their organization, their work, and their team. So you need to ask your people how they feel about all these.

You can ask for employee feedback in many different ways, but one of the most effective ways to capture and act on feedback is through a continuous listening and feedback solution, such as Qualtrics EmployeeXM® which includes:

Employee Pulse Surveys

Stay in tune with your employees’ changing flexible working needs by asking them – and acting on their feedback. Employee pulse surveys help you get fast, actionable insights and trends on how your people feel and what they value – without causing survey fatigue.

People Lifecycle

Helps you understand the moments that matter in your new employees’ experience so that your organization will meet their expectations, leading to higher engagement and greater intent to stay.

CrossXM

Tune into the needs of your frontline employees. It’s well known that good employee experience then delivers good customer and brand experiences.  CrossXM pulls in data from every experience (EX, CX and BX) to find connections between them, and show you what actions to take that will keep your employees engaged and your customers happy.

Manager Assist

At last, you can bring together – in a single place – everything your managers need to increase employee engagement and productivity and reduce costly and unwanted attrition.

Manager Assist is the only purpose-built hub for managers to easily understand feedback and take action on the things that will keep their teams engaged and productive.

Through crowdsourcing, it pulls the team in to be part of the solution; its built-in collaboration and action tools help the whole team brainstorm, collaborate, create plans, and share accountability – based on everyone’s feedback.

Free eBook: Designing a world-class EX program that attracts and retains talent