Employee Disengagement and the Problem of Workplace Complacency

This year, North American workers are displaying a new appetite for stability. A 2019 Achievers employee survey found that only 35 percent of employees say they plan to look for a new job this year, a drastic drop from the 74 percent who made that statement in 2018. While this figure may seem to promise smooth sailing for managers, it actually contains a matter for concern. That matter is complacency, and behind the positive retention figures lurks a significant issue of employee disengagement.

Are those employees who plan to stay at their current jobs feeling engaged? Do they come to work energized every day, ready to be productive? When those questions are considered, the study results are far less encouraging. Only 21 percent of survey respondents report themselves to be “very engaged” with their jobs. And the other 79 percent? The majority of them will stay put this year, but will approach their job tasks in a spirit of complacency, passive resignation, or even active disengagement. This vacuum in company culture represents a serious threat to business success. Here’s an overview of this problem, together with clear-cut actions that businesses can take to mitigate this risk.

Paychecks are Powerful Anchors in 2019

Finances are at the forefront of workers’ minds this year, as a result of 2018’s low wage growth and high inflation. Only 14 percent of employees say they’d consider switching jobs because they don’t feel engaged. Instead, if they consider job hunting at all, most people would do so for financial reasons: “a pay raise” (54.2 percent), “career advancement” (37.8 percent) or “better corporate benefits” (20.7 percent).

Why Employee Disengagement Spells Trouble

The fact that compensation is sufficient to keep employees from changing jobs does not mean managers can ignore the need for engaging these workers. Human psychology shows that it’s problematic to have employees hanging on in jobs they’re not excited about. Disengaged workers have absentee rates 37 percent higher than their engaged counterparts, while they drive company productivity down by 18 percent and profitability down by 15 percent. Customer service will obviously suffer if company representatives are “checked out” and doing only the absolute minimum required to collect their paychecks.

How to Build Employee Engagement

Each worker’s enthusiasm hinges on individual factors, but the study did identify the most common non-financial contributors to employee disengagement. These contributors include a lack of recognition and career growth, poor relationships with managers, and lack of executive response to employee feedback. The good news is that ample room exists for improvement in company practices when it comes to engaging workers. The manager’s toolkit for building engagement includes the following straightforward elements:

Leaders Need to Listen and Respond in Real Time

Employee concerns are dynamic, based on problems or ideas that arise at particular points in the workflow. If supervisors only ask for feedback at infrequent scheduled points, employee needs and creative solutions will get left behind and ignored. Sixteen percent of employers literally never ask for feedback at all, while another 40 percent only seek it once or twice a year. Truly responsive management requires a real-time connection to employees, through pulse surveys or daily check-ins. Only by listening and responding in the moment can managers avoid the productivity erosion caused by employee disengagement.

Top Workers Need to be Recognized

While recognition is key to retaining all employees, company productivity is especially dependent on retaining the most highly skilled workers. In today’s networked world, these talented individuals are probably being approached by other employers on a regular basis, so it is crucial to make sure they feel appreciated for their hard work. Nearly 1 in 5 workers say that their main reason for wanting a different job is that they are not being recognized in their current position. Twenty-nine percent said they were recognized at least once a month, while only 10.8 percent said they were recognized weekly. These figures represent a significant missed opportunity for employers.

Employee Engagement is Fluid and Personal

Employee needs cannot be effectively met on a generic, “one-size-fits-all” basis. Each individual has their own rhythms and concerns, and those must be listened to individually. Achievers’ Chief Workforce Scientist Dr. Natalie Baumgartner comments that what struck her in the data is “how differently each respondent prioritized their work experience.” She goes on to point out that there is “a huge opportunity to improve employee listening to understand engagement at an individual level.”

Leaders Set the Company Culture

Only nine percent of employees in the Achievers study stated that their leadership is “very committed” to improving company culture. Over one-third (38 percent) of respondents report that they either “have never heard leadership talk about culture” or ‘they talk about it, but there’s not action.” These numbers show that creating an environment of active listening and recognition is not just the responsibility of HR staff. Instead, the research shows that company culture can only reverse employee disengagement when leaders put conscious effort into building that culture.

While financial considerations may keep employees at their jobs in 2019, compensation alone is not enough to ensure optimum productivity. Only a positive company culture built around employee recognition can make the most of an organization’s human capital. This culture starts with continuous listening, using tools and technologies that allow leaders to respond proactively to employee disengagement in real time.

Want to learn more? Download the full report:  The Complacency Effect: Despite Disengagement, Employees Plan to Stay at Their Jobs

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Profile image of author: Tiffany Durinski
Tiffany Durinski was a Senior Content Marketing Manager at Achievers.

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