Signs of employee disengagement

Anna Kelsey-Sugg

Advice on how to bite the signs of disengagement - before they bite you

Rehabilitation and return to work are most successful when the worker is fully engaged in the process - and that's more likely to be the case when they're switched on about work.

Simple signs of disengagement in the workplace are hard to miss: picking nails for hours, flicking though job vacancy ads or taking a nap in front of the computer. It doesn’t take a psychology degree to pick that the person snoring at their desk is probably less than fully engaged in their job.

But there are less obvious signs of the more insidious elements of disengagement. Understanding how to recognise these signs is vital in taking steps to address them – and it’s worth the effort. Disengaged employees are less likely to want to return to their job quickly, if at all, after an injury. Their rehabilitation is likely to occur more slowly, and they will probably have less enthusiasm for their previous, pre-injury role.

Here are some less obvious signs to look out for in an employee:

  • Looking unhappy.

Does your employee engage in a chat every so often and respond to attempts at conversation? Do they have an unenthusiastic and discontented demeanour, a negative attitude in their day? Do they slink in at 10 past 9 and rush out the door at 5pm on the dot?

  • Taking a lot of time off work.

Obviously there can be legitimate reasons for this, but when there perhaps aren’t, it’s a good time to wonder if the employee simply doesn’t want to be at work, because they are bored by and not getting satisfaction from the job.

  • Being dismissive of responsibility or not going the extra mile.

When there are problems in your workplace, is your employee’s attitude, ‘That’s not my fault’ or ‘It’s not my role to fix that’? If so, take it as a sure fire indicator of disengagement from the job and the workplace.

  • Talking about work as being too easy.

It is difficult to maintain engagement with work that is not challenging enough. It might seem like easy work would make life a walk in the park, but we’re actually much happier when we feel like we’re working at our best and making a valuable contribution to the workplace.

What to do:

Ask questions, offer solutions. Asking your employee how they are seems simple, but it’s a question that’s often neglected in the workplace. How is your employee going with the job, with colleagues, at home, in general? Open the lines of communication so your employee trusts you enough to let you know when things are wrong. You don’t have to be a counsellor, but as their employer you should notice if your employee is unhappy. You can also use questionnaires to find out how your employees are feeling. Just the simple act of asking can improve things.

Offer options and flexibility. If an employee feels under-challenged, is there another position they can move to in the workplace? Are there different responsibilities they can take on? What work would they like to be doing in the workplace, and what  path might help them get there? If an employee can see their work as part of an upward trajectory, engagement is likely to increase ten-fold.

Remember, engagement drives the amount of effort employees put into their work. Engagement also drives advocacy, increases creativity and innovation and makes employees more likely to think of new ideas and more efficient ways of doing things, and re-designing processes so that they’re more effective than if they’re working in an environment that is bureaucratic or stifling. Being open and receptive to employee opinion fosters a sense of employee engagement.

Take home tips: (Courtesy of James Adonis, author of Employee enragement – why people hate working for you. See RTWMatters' interview with James or

  • Offer support mechanisms. Ask questions such as, How are we motivating people? How are we training people? What kind of jobs are we offering? Are we utilising people’s talents? Are we recognising and rewarding staff? What are the ergonomics like? How easy is it to get help? Are managers accessible?
  • Focus on employee relationships. There are two different types: those between managers and employees, and those between employees. The tighter and closer those relationships, the higher the levels of engagement.
  • Offer opportunities. If managers don’t find ways to keep employees continuously stimulated they’ll leave, either mentally or physically. Regularly create new opportunities by starting a new mini project or redesigning a role, giving employees new responsibilities or putting them on a training program - whatever it takes so that they always feel that they have more to learn and are achieving a goal.