The Cause of Disengagement | California Employee Benefits Group

The Cause of Disengagement | California Employee Benefits Group

For decades, employee engagement has been the gold standard in measuring the way employees interact with the business.  In today’s world, especially where the coronavirus is concerned, it’s not just about the interaction but also the level of commitment to the company.  While all human resources professionals would like to believe their employees are committed to their organization, the statistics simply don’t paint that type of picture.

Over the last two decades, Gallup reports the percentage of employees disengaged at work has averaged 70 percent.1  And it’s been costly.  Disengaged employees have 18 percent lower productivity with profitability being 15 percent lower.2  When put into dollars and cents – “an actively disengaged employee costs their organization $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary, or 34 percent. That means an actively disengaged employee who makes $60,000 a year costs their company $20,400 a year!”3

So, what’s the answer to increasing engagement across the enterprise and, in doing so, increasing productivity and profits?

Disengagement and Engagement

The Causes

Defining what employee engagement is, in reality, is critical to understanding its benefits and its challenges.  Generally speaking, every HR professional has a different definition but all include the basic component that an engaged employee is one who commits to the organization and gives of him or herself freely to the success of the company.


But what causes employee engagement?  Let’s take a psychological approach.

The term was first coined by psychologist William Kahn in a 1990 study titled Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.4  In the piece, Khan studied two different workplaces:  a very structured and formal architecture firm and a casual summer camp.  From his observations, he defined engagement as “the harnessing of organization members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances”.

Additionally, Kahn outlined three psychological conditions that allow engagement to exist:

  1. Meaningfulness – Is the work meaningful enough to the employee that he/she engages with their full-self?
  2. Safety – Is the work environment such that a person can bring their full-self without fear of criticism?
  3. Availability – Is the employee mentally and physically able to express their full-self in the work environment?

Kahn further stated those individuals who are fully engaged with the organization will take ownership of their work and will be loyal to the organization.  Additionally, he said engagement isn’t a constant.  Any number of experiences can cause engagement to change.

Of course, Kahn’s original definition has changed somewhat over the three decades since it was first coined.  As previously mentioned, engagement has become more about the employee’s willingness to go “above and beyond”5 to benefit the organization.

“People are wanting to feel that investment from their organization and that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a massive thing, but they want it to feel like it’s a two-way street,” Christopher Lind said.  He’s the Head of Global Digital Learning for GE Healthcare.  “It’s not so much a ‘you’re here to serve the employer’ thing.  People are looking for that partnership. ‘I’m here to serve you.  You’re here to serve me.  And how are we meeting in the middle?”


Understanding how engagement works is only half the battle.  For HR to move the needle and make significant improvements, there needs to be an understanding of what can cause disengagement.

A key indicator of disengagement is apathy.  Other factors occur when there is a lack of:

  • Autonomy
  • Communication
  • Flexibility
  • Development
  • Trust
  • Personal and/or Workplace Challenges

While it’s not an exhaustive list, it is a very real possibility one or more of these can exist within an organization.  The challenge lies in trying to figure out how best to address each consistently and constantly.

If we were to rank these factors on a spectrum of difficulty where 10 is the most difficult and one is the least difficult, it might look something like this:

As you notice, not a one of the factors is easily overcome.  Personal and/or workplace challenges are difficult because some of those situations are not internal.  They are external and companies are in a limited position of power when it comes to impacting those factors.  Apathy isn’t far behind, but it is often a symptom of those perceived challenges.  If a person is having an issue at home, it may present itself as a lack of interest or enthusiasm at work.

Now, that’s not to say human resources or leadership can’t offer some ways of dealing with these issues.  In some instances, a wellness benefit can be of use i.e. counseling of any type be it emotion or legal.

When it comes to autonomy, there is often a disconnect about what this actually entails.  It is not:

  • Working in isolation without supervision.
  • Allowing employees to do whatever they like, but rather employers creating guidelines that put boundaries around employee autonomy.
  • Working without a net, but rather employers providing a picture of what success looks like and tips on how to achieve it.

It’s more about providing the means by which employees have the latitude to make their own decisions and employers provide both the tools and the guidelines to help employees succeed.  Success often leads to engagement.

Autonomy is often the result of trust.  Leaders who trust their employees allow them to be more autonomous.  But trust goes both ways.  From a disengagement standpoint, the employee who feels they are not trusted by leadership at any level will be less likely to give of themselves.  Trust within this context can also mean the employee does not feel the company has his or her best interest at heart; that they are seen as nothing more than a number rather than a person.

Communication ranked lower than some might consider, but its difficulty lies in the messaging.  Anyone can send an email, make a phone call or share something on social media.  It’s the context of the message; what are you as a company, as an HR professional trying to convey to the employ?  How is the employee perceiving that message and acting upon it as a result.

From the employee perspective, it’s about communicating with the organization about any number of things be it needs or desires.  Sometimes that communication is of a sensitive nature.  How is that communication handled?  If it is handled poorly, the employee will disengage.  If it is properly handled, the translation is often an increase in engagement.

Flexibility presents unique challenges as it is often related to scheduling and working environment.  Can an employee work different hours to complete his or her job and function at the same productivity levels as other members of the team?  Flexibility is also critical in today’s environment especially when considering work-life balance.  Can a parent still get their child to soccer practice on time and provide great service to their employer?

Finally, we come to development.  Development is not easy.  Not by any means.  The challenges often lay in meeting people where they are, but also what they desire.  There are also challenges in making sure that learning presents a return on investment.

Impact on the Business

Employee engagement continues to be one of the most important metrics an organization can track.  It is, after all, not just a check box issue.  It requires constant and consistent attention.  Otherwise, human resources runs the risk of seeing gaps in engagement leading to an increase in disengagement.

Employees aren’t simply looking for a 9-to-5, Monday through Friday job.  They want to be involved, committed and enthusiastic.  An organization that creates the right environment can continuously feed those employee needs.  In return, the organization sees continued growth and success within their industry.


by Mason Stevenson
Originally posted on HR Exchange Network