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7 Strategies to Address Employee Disengagement

Disengagement is on the rise in America's workplaces. But the right strategies can keep your employees connected.

If your employees seem disengaged and isolated from their work and your company, you’re not alone Gallup research, which defines employee engagement as “the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace,” found that only 33 percent of employees reported being engaged at work in 2023.

New research from McKinsey & Company finds that when employees are disengaged—which can result in frequent absenteeism, stress, poor performance, self-solation and increased conflict—they cost a midsize S&P 500 company between $228 million and $355 million per year in lost productivity—or at least $1.1 billion per company over five years. It follows that improving employee engagement can offer significant benefits for your team and your larger organization.

What Drives Employee Disengagement?

Solving employee disengagement begins with understanding what drives it. “A lot of this started with the pandemic, but it hasn’t slowed down,” says Amy Casciotti, vice president of human resources at TechSmith, a producer of software that creates videos and images for companies, in East Lansing, Michigan. “Many thought we’d go back to how things were. But it’s not. If anything, things are worse right now. For example, you have stress put on working parents during the pandemic, and that hasn’t changed.”

Casciotti notes that there’s currently a mental health crisis, and many managers are seeing an increase in employees taking leave for mental health reasons. The answer, she says, lies in determining, “How do we help support [these employees] before they get to that point?”

In addition to personal distress, Gallup cites unclear role expectations, lower organizational satisfaction, detachment from their companies’ mission/purpose and feeling like no one cares as other prime contributing factors to employee disengagement. McKinsey’s research agrees, suggesting that companies can recoup up to $56 million in disengagement costs per year by focusing on six key drivers of employee dissatisfaction: inadequate compensation, lack of meaningful work, little workplace flexibility, limited career and advancement opportunities, unreliable and unsupportive colleagues, and unsafe work environments.

The following seven strategies can help managers get to the root of their employees’ disengagement and address it before it negatively affects their other team members and decreases productivity.

1. Identify Disengaged Employees

Pinpointing which employees are disengaged is the first step to resolving their feelings of isolation and discontent. “When someone is disengaged, you’ll see they don’t initiate, and they may be withdrawing or trying to isolate themselves,” says Wendy Hanson, co-founder and chief of culture and community at New Level Work, a leadership development firm in San Francisco. “They may resist change and new ideas, wanting to stay with what they know.” Tardiness, missed deadlines or low-quality output can be indicators that an employee is not engaged in their work.

Experts agree that signs of employee disengagement vary, and it’s important to be aware of new behaviors that signal discontent. Disengagement occurs by degrees, ranging from employees being mildly dissatisfied to on the brink of leaving.

2. Ask Probing Questions

If an employee is pulling away, it’s time to start a conversation.

“If you think of disengagement as a cry for help, that can help managers remember to check in more often and ask questions like, ‘What can I do to support you now?’ ” says Gena Cox, founder and CEO of Feels Human, LLC, a leadership coaching firm based in Tampa, Florida, that specializes in building inclusive, high-performance organizations. “They can be more direct and say, ‘I can tell that you are not feeling as connected to the team as you used to. What would have to change to make you feel more like a valuable member of our team?’ ”

Asking probing questions helps employees identify what they need to feel supported, experts suggest. Exploring those questions and suggesting potential solutions can help shift disengaged employees into an empowered, problem-solving mindset.

3. Collaborate on Solutions

Once you identify a disengaged employee, work with that employee to find a solution—and make it clear that you’re invested in their success, says Elaine Mak, chief people and performance officer at Valimail, a Denver-based cybersecurity company that validates and authenticates emails.

“If they feel overwhelmed, explore strategies together to prioritize tasks,” Mak advises. “Offer training opportunities if they lack skills and provide flexibility in work arrangements. For instance, you could say, ‘Let’s work together to create a plan that helps you manage your workload more effectively.’ ”

Employees often become disengaged when they feel no one cares about them in the workplace, Mak explains, adding that a manager’s approach can be the antidote. She recommends showing genuine empathy and authenticity, and providing ongoing encouragement to support the employee. “Set specific goals and milestones to track progress,” Mak advises. “For example, you could say, ‘I believe in your ability to overcome these challenges. Let’s set some goals together and monitor your progress regularly.’”

4. Highlight Relevant Benefits

When a manager identifies someone who is struggling, says Casciotti, it can be helpful to work with HR to ensure the employee is aware of the support and relevant benefits available to them. These may include:

  • Employee assistance programs.
  • Mental health benefits that are part of health insurance plans.
  • Paid time off opportunities, including extended leave options.
  • Flexible scheduling and other benefits that can address outside stressors through greater balance.

Casciotti notes that employees may fear negative consequences for taking time off or using the benefits they are entitled to. Communicate your support for employees who want to take advantage of any benefits your company offers to help reduce concerns.

5. Take Responsibility for What You Can Change

It’s important not to blame an employee for feeling disengaged, says Yolanda M. Owens, a career coach at The Muse, a New York City-based company that has created a platform to help employees match with the companies and jobs most suitable to them. Managers can take responsibility for their own behavior by asking the right questions, she says, showing their own vulnerability and committing to what they can change. Owens says some questions for managers to consider include:

  • Are you rewarding competence with more work? “Employees are already stretched thin with the expectation of doing more with less,” Owens says. “And increasing that expectation as a form of recognition can feel more like a sucker punch than a love pat.”
  • Are rewards aligned with employee preferences? “Find out what their work ‘love language’ is (it’s not always food or money), and reward them with that,” Owens advises.

Managers should ask themselves if they are clearly articulating for their employees the objectives behind their work and how their contributions matter, Owens says. “Understanding the logic, impact and contribution to the bigger picture helps individuals find purpose in the work and often shows up in higher levels of engagement.”

6. Bring Respect to Every Interaction

Modeling respect in interactions with your employees can improve how they feel. “My antidote to disengagement is respect,” says Cox, author of Leading Inclusion: Drive Change Your Employees Can See and Feel (Page Two, 2022). “At the highest levels, leaders must set the expectation in their values that each manager and colleague will be respectful in their interactions with one another and with clients and other partners.”

Cox notes that employees need three elements to feel respected: They must feel seen, heard and valued. To convey respect, managers can:

  • Recognize employees for their contributions directly, in team meetings or companywide settings.
  • Set aside time to meet with employees one-on-one, and treat those meetings as important.
  • Ask employees for their perspective, and take action on their feedback.

7. Cultivate a Healthy Company Culture

Engagement starts with company culture, Casciotti says. Provide regular opportunities for employees to form deeper connections with one another. She suggests scheduling team coffee times, catered lunches or other informal opportunities where employees can connect. Find ways to bring fun into team meetings—even the virtual ones.

Helping your employees find mentors can also rekindle engagement, Mak says. “Providing outside resources where employees can get advice, advocacy, vent frustrations and be themselves can improve how they show up at their workspaces. It provides an alternate space where needs get met and voices are heard.”

Employee disengagement can translate into lost productivity, low morale and serious financial losses for a company. The good news: Identifying employee disengagement, investing in solutions and proactively engaging your employees can quickly turn the situation around.

Liz Alton is a freelance HR and technology writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.


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