Effective workplaces rely on collaboration, communication, and positively engaged employees and managers. However, there has been a rising trend of “quiet quitting” during the past year as many workers have shown increased patterns of disengagement with their work.

According to a September 2022 Gallup report, only 32 percent of workers were actively engaged during the second quarter of the year, while actively disengaged employees increased to 18 percent. The ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees is now 1.8 to 1, the lowest in almost a decade.

Furthermore, millennial employees who make up 35 percent of the workforce as of 2018, value engagement above workplace perks like ping-pong tables and free coffee. 

We asked Michael McCarthy, instructor of The Positive Workplace: Building Employee Engagement and Satisfaction, about his thoughts on what causes this level of disengagement, how it impacts the workplace, and tactics for reviving a detached employee.

What is a Disengaged Employee? 

Michael McCarthy.
Michael McCarthy.

Disengaged employees tend to not feel excited about their job or experience joy at the workplace. They lack motivation and inspiration and while they may fulfill their job tasks properly, they don’t put in any extra effort to help the organization reach its goals.

Typically, disengaged employees need to be pushed to work. They also tend to be more quiet, avoid communication, and refrain from asking for performance feedback. They also prefer to not engage with their team members or participate in group events. Emotionally, disengaged employees separate their emotions from their work.

Actively disengaged employees account for 18 percent of the workplace population [according to Gallup]. This group openly dislikes their job and are quite vocal about making negative comments about the workplace and also speak negatively about it outside of work. They are often absent, have low energy, and exhibit a bad attitude. Gossiping and cynical humor are signs of active disengagement. 

What Causes Employee Disengagement? 

A previously engaged employee may become disengaged for many reasons, although a lack of autonomy, purpose, and meaning are top of the list.

Employees who feel that their work doesn’t matter may indicate that the organization’s mission doesn’t align with the employee’s personal vision of what creates purpose and meaning in life. Humans need to feel that they are doing work that matters — that vision also needs to be in harmony with the company they work for. 

Lack of growth opportunities is also a major cause of disengagement. Without those opportunities, feelings of stagnation can set in. In addition, poor training and inadequate resources can cause dissatisfaction and resentment.  

The great resignation proved that excessive workload can be a significant cause of stress and dissatisfaction. Employees who remained at their workplace had to take on the slack of departing employees, often without an increase in compensation. This destabilizes work-life balance, which then can create personal challenges at home as people try to do it all. 

Hybrid work policies, including being forced back into an office setting, can be difficult to navigate. Imagine giving up your remote job, commuting for hours into the office, only to find yourself connecting to your colleagues via Zoom.

Poor leadership and management can make workers feel incredibly frustrated. A lack of transparency by leadership can be a cause of disengagement with employees. If employees are unclear on what’s going on within the company, it can be difficult to feel truly involved. This also includes not receiving feedback on how employees are doing or how they can improve. Surefire ways to disengage employees are dysfunctional teams and a toxic workplace culture.

Lastly, a lack of autonomy or work flexibility can quickly create disengagement. Micromanaging employees withdraws autonomy and the employee then feels distrusted.

How Do Disengaged Employees Impact the Workplace? 

Disengagement is contagious and can rapidly reduce productivity. Imagine one person with the flu coming into a room full of healthy people. Healthy people don’t make one sick person better; the sick person infects the healthy ones. This is similar to how disengagement works.

Disengagement can spread quickly and can create an environment of discontentment. This demotivates workers who were previously engaged. The impact on productivity can then  spread throughout the organization.  

How Can You Effectively Re-Engage Employees? 

Re-engaging employees can be challenging. For starters, being angry or accusatory with them will not get them back on board. Trying to understand them has a better chance of success. (Check out our blog post for more information on How to Give Negative Feedback to Employees.)

Talk to them in a psychologically safe environment and express your concern that things seem to have changed with them. Ask them if they are okay and if there’s something else going on in their lives that has impacted their work. It’s possible that something outside is causing distress. If so, is the issue temporary or permanent? Make sure to ask how you can support them. 

If the issue is inside the organization, this is where you may be able to help more. Very often simply asking, “What could change at work for you to be excited again about working here?” can invite helpful feedback.

Explore giving your employees opportunities to take on projects that stimulate them so that they can enjoy what they do and perform to the best of their capabilities.  

Be sure to give employees autonomy with an open door policy of support without micromanaging them. Offer clear goals that they understand and then let them accomplish those goals in their way. Make it clear that if they are successful, more opportunities can come their way.

Also consider letting them take professional development classes if they love to learn. Professional development is important to continuing career growth and helping employees reach their full potential. 

Finally, experiment with your employees’ feedback on how to improve their work and the workplace. Perhaps they want to have a policy change, such as setting their own remote/hybrid work schedule. Be open to experimenting and provide success metrics that are clear and attainable. 

If you give employees a chance to create change themselves, they may quickly re-engage as they create an environment in which they will thrive. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.