More companies than ever before are recognizing the supreme importance of employee happiness at work – investing in new mechanisms, reward schemes and policies to support it. But action is a little less clear cut when it comes to managing its adversary: employee disengagement. While companies may know how to avoid disengagement, many aren’t so hot on how to actually identify it. Early detection is almost always the best cure, and managers need to be able to spot disengagement early in order to protect against its worst effects.
Before moving on to the actual symptoms of employee disengagement, first we have to straighten out what we actually mean by it. According to Gallup, it’s a lot more complex than it might seem, and can manifest in three main states:
Engaged: Engaged employees feel a profound connection to their work and the company they work for. They drive innovation and seek to move their organization forward, showing passion and focus. They’re in touch with their own goals and clearly understand those of their company, too.
Not engaged: These are workers who have essentially “checked out” of their work – perhaps due to an event or circumstance, or simply by falling out of love with what they do. Passive interaction or auto-piloting, continual clock-watching, and mild to major underperformance characterise their performance. They’ll also lack a sense of autonomy or ambition, but may not consciously realize it.
Actively disengaged: these employees actively demonstrate their unhappiness or anguish at work. They translate their frustration into action; be it resisting processes or leadership, actively undermining their peers, or constantly venting criticisms.
Clearly, “not engaged” is preferable to “actively disengaged”, but it’s still not ideal. The latter rarely just happens overnight; big events, like a change of management, an influx of work or a high staff turnover can trigger this state, but long-felt resentment usually feeds it. Ultimately, failing to address disengagement when it first occurs can push employees to new extremes of distress.
To minimize the harm caused by disengagement – both to employee and wider team – we need to respond to it quickly. There are a few early signs of employee disengagement every manager should watch out for. These can include:
If an employee is taking longer than usual to finish tasks or making uncharacteristic errors, it’s a signal that they might be struggling with something. Performance can be one of the most obvious indicators of an employee’s wellbeing, since emotional and mental health issues can make it harder to be fully present and focused on our work. Also look out for creative withdrawal – where employees show a lack of pride, interest or enthusiasm for what they’ve been working on.
Fluctuations in working patterns can also communicate a wider instability at work. This can take many different forms – working increased overtime, staying serially late, not taking breaks or taking longer breaks than usual, working uneven hours across the week, arriving late or being frequently absent. Be alert to anything that shows imbalance compared to their norm. Try using an automatic tracking tool like Timely to easily check-in on your employees’ performance, activities and working patterns.
Disengagement is, at its core, an emotion. So looking for changes in an employees emotional behavior can help you identify it. You’ll need a sound knowledge of your individual employees to spot it, but focusing on the way they share and interact with others is a good place to start. Social withdrawal, changes in tone and a drop in participation in meetings and discussions all indicate something is wrong. Be sensitive to the content of what they do share as well – whether their feedback or comments are overwhelmingly negative, self-depreciating, uninspired, guarded or exasperated. Obviously, aggressive reactions, leading conflicts and provoking others are clear signs they need support.
A surge in an employee’s workload can quickly overwhelm employees. That can be down to a drop in their efficiency or productivity – causing tasks to bunch up – or simply just down to increased intake during a busy period. Whatever the cause, it can become unmanageable. Work-induced stress, anxiety and employee burnout are very real and have a direct impact on an employee’s engagement at work.
Someone who’s not engaged won’t necessarily feel connected to their peers or leaders, or will seek solace in colleagues who are similarly disengaged. If you notice someone transition from being part of a solid work support network to frequently working alone, evading social events or taking solo lunches, it’s a clear sign that something is wrong. Feedback is a huge resource here – always address team collaboration and individual experiences at work in your one-to-ones with employees.
Ownership counts for a lot when it comes to work engagement. We feel good when we can steer the direction of our work and take on new responsibilities. So it seems natural that those who lack that accountability and enthusiasm are probably disengaged from their work overall. Be mindful of any situation that might negatively impact someone’s professional autonomy or sense of creative control.
If you notice one or several of these disengagement symptoms, you’ll want to address them right away. While raising concerns directly with an employee in a private one-to-one is one way of doing this, you should also create more opportunities for employees to volunteer candid feedback about their experiences at work – surveys, focus groups, workshops, regular performance reviews and away days are all great for this.
It’s also important to be mindful that disengagement may be the result of pressures outside of the workplace – what might come across as an off attitude or an unwillingness to cooperate may be down to a distressing life event, like a divorce or a death in the family, or an enduring mental health problem.
It’s not your place to play pseudo-psychologist, but you can help create the conditions that make people feel safe opening up to you, so you can make workplace adjustments to mitigate additional stress and connect them with professional support if needed.