Whatever... Why Employees Stop Caring About Work

Last Updated Oct 16, 2008 2:18 PM EDT

Employee engagement is a comparatively new term, but the concept is old. We used to call it commitment or involvement.

Even without research, common sense dictates that if you're keen, committed and involved -- and these attitudes are supported, respected, encouraged and rewarded -- you're likely to do a better job.

The words "supported, respected, encouraged and rewarded" are what's important here.

There's evidence to suggest the level of people's engagement declines with their length of service in an organisation. They start off keen and try to perform at their best. But if they receive no support, or get disrespect, zero encouragement or acknowledgement, praise or reward, they learn that being "engaged" is a mug's game.

Gallup estimates it costs the US economy about $300bn a year and that 17 per cent of employees are "actively" disengaged. These employees each cost their employers $13,000 a year in lost productivity. You can quibble about whether these figures are a precise reflection of the situation, but even if they are discounted by 50 per cent the effects are devastating -- and the situation is just not acceptable.

Engagement/disengagement is quite clearly not just a phenomenon in commercial organisations. On one of its websites, the UK civil service reports that

  • 12 per cent of UK public sector workers are highly engaged; 22 per cent are disengaged
  • 84 per cent of highly engaged public sector workers in the UK believe they can have an impact on the quality of the organisation's work -- compared to about one-quarter of disengaged workers.
  • Engaged employees in the UK take an average of 2.69 sick days per year; the disengaged take 6.19 sick days per year.
  • Engaged employees generate 43 per cent more revenue than disengaged ones.
  • Engaged employees are 87 per cent less likely to leave the organisation than the disengaged.
Clearly, failing to support, encourage, respect and reward people carries an enormous cost. Sometimes this failure is a sin of omission but depressingly often it is a sin of commission.

Many managers consciously treat people disrespectfully, belittle their accomplishments and make every effort to "keep them in their place".

We know what most people want: they want to feel valued. They want their contribution to be recognized. One of the consequences of not feeling valued or not being recognized is that people withdraw and do less and less.

This has a major impact on an organization, lowering morale and productivity, draining resources, and blocking performance. It is also infectious -- negative behaviour has a multiplier effect on the behaviour of others.

Here are some signs that someone's disengaged at work

  • Try to avoid being held solely responsible for things.
  • Avoid firm time commitments for getting things done.
  • Keep a low profile on issues.
  • Distance themselves from others' failures.
  • Avoid sharing information with others.
  • Cut themselves off from people at times.
People don't behave like this for no reason -- it's a reaction to the way their jobs are structured and, more importantly, the way they are being managed.

(Photo: Jelene, CC2.0)

  • Robin Stuart-Kotze

    Robin Stuart-Kotze is a founder of the consultancy Behavioural Science Systems, whose clients include P&O, BP, Oracle, and Johnson & Johnson. He’s also made his way in management, largely in the financial services sector in the UK and Canada. A distinguished academic with a PhD in organisational psychology, Robin co-wrote “Who Are Your Best People?” about effective talent management.