Gallup reported that only 20% of employees globally are engaged. So you might think that the signs of a disengaged employee were fairly obvious, but that’s not always the case. You likely work with someone who is disengaged, but you might nit know about it. Especially with more remote and flexible working.

The problem is those staff won’t necessarily get vocal about it. They’re more likely to stew in the background, making poor employee engagement harder to identify. But don’t worry. There are four signs to look out for.

The four signs of poor employee engagement

1. Disengaged employees lack initiative

The best thing about managing a team of really engaged employees is that you don’t have to oversee every little detail of their work. If you can’t trust them to deliver, you’ll have to micromanage which is likely to make your own productivity suffer.

A lack of engagement isn’t the only reason employees might hesitate to take the initiative. Maybe they’re a recent hire and want to learn the ropes before they rock the boat. But if you’ve noticed once-driven employees now doing the bare minimum, or only doing what you explicitly ask of them, then there’s a good chance they aren’t engaged in their role.

One of the key signs of a disengaged employee seems to be lack initiative. But if that’s an issue you keep running into, it’s worth reflecting on your management style. Ask yourself whether they’ve got the level of autonomy that they need to thrive.

If they don’t seem to take the initiative despite having a good amount of autonomy, then you should sit them down for a one-to-one. Find out if anything is bothering them, in or out of work, and revisit the expectations you established for their role during the onboarding process

2. Disengaged employees tend to be silent in group meetings

If you’re wondering how to pick up on signs of a disengaged employee in a group meeting, the answer is that their silence gives them away. Listening is a useful skill, and everyone hates that one team member who won’t stop talking during a group stand-up. But if all someone’s doing is listening without responding, then you have to question whether what’s being said is actually being heard at all.

This shouldn’t be confused with active listening, which is a vital inter-personal skill in any workplace. An active listener would respond to what they heard with questions and insight. But to a disengaged employee, conversations about company objectives and new clients might as well be white noise. But sometimes, a lack of engagement can run deeper than a lack of contribution to team meetings.

3. Disengaged employees withdraw socially

Spotting signs of a disengaged employee is complicated when that lack of engagement is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s one thing for someone to sit through the business end of a group meeting without engaging. But if they’ve stopped small talk at the beginning, then that can indicate that their issues run deeper.

Of course, not everyone is a socialite at heart. Introverted staff tend to be naturally quieter. But if you’ve noticed someone’s level of interact shift, that can be cause for concern.

Social connection plays a major role in the workplace. It helps people to collaborate effectively while building resiliency against the stresses of working life. An uncharacteristic withdrawal from social activity can be indicative of poor mental health, which many people are often reluctant to discuss openly.

While you can’t force employees to discuss the private details of their life with you, what you can do is give them the opportunity to talk. Managers have a duty of care to their staff. De-stigmatising the conversation around our wellbeing is essential for making sure your team stays engaged in the long-term.

4. Disengaged employees are often absent

Absenteeism is probably one of the easiest signs of a disengaged employee to spot, especially in an office environment. But it’s harder when we’re working remotely. But if someone’s missing meetings or not online, then there’s a good chance you’re witnessing digital absenteeism.

Similarly to social withdrawal, absenteeism is often indicative of other issues besides a lack of engagement at work. You should consider whether the organisation is doing enough to support employees who are struggling with aspects of their wellbeing.

Of course not all absenteeism stems from personal issues. If someone is so disengaged at work that they’re barely showing up, it’s worth sitting them down for a discussion about expectations. More specifically, the expectations they had of the position going into it, and whether or not the reality of the job lives up to them.

Why employee engagement matters

Let’s start by clarifying that employee engagement isn’t a magic bullet for every workplace. Yes, it’s usually a good indicator of overall wellbeing. But research from Gallup has found that engagement and wellbeing diverged for the first time during the pandemic. On top of that, engaged staff will hold you to a higher standard. They’re much more likely to notice mistakes or inconsistencies in your management style.

But, if you can handle that, then the rewards are definitely worth it. Highly engaged employees have been shown to be up to 2.5x more financially productive than disengaged employees. They’re also more likely to buy into new tools and policies, which gives them their best odds of success. Engagement is also vital if you want your people go the extra mile to provide discretionary effort and creative insight.

Why disengagement is bad for business

For starters, disengaged staff are less productive. But that’s far from the only issue that can stem from a lack of engagement. The insidious truth about poor engagement is that it can be really hard to spot in a lot of cases.

Sure, your most actively disengaged employees might kick up a fuss. At least in the time before they leave the company altogether. But a moderate lack of engagement makes people more likely to just suffer in silence.

Long-standing engagement issues can make employees cynical. They may not see any value in bothering to communicate their issues. This means you have to be proactive and emotionally intelligent to pick up on it.

Total disengagement is much easier to spot. But at that point, there’s a very good chance they won’t be around much longer. Disengagement massively increases the risk of employee turnover. Staff become more vulnerable to being headhunted by a competitor, or leaving that business sector entirely. Turnover costs an average of £30,000 per lost employee. According to ONS figures for last year, turnover cost UK businesses a total of almost £5.5 billion in 2021.

What highly engaged employees look like

Everyone is different, and we all react to things like stress or boredom in our own way. But even so, there are a few common characteristics that most highly engaged employees share. Highly engaged employees are more likely to:

  • Overcome barriers to performance.
  • Play to their strengths.
  • Are proactive about their own engagement.
  • Take accountability for their performance instead of blaming others.

So now we’ve been through how to spot an unengaged employee, here’s a quick rundown of what a high level of employee engagement looks like.

High job satisfaction and pride in their work

Simply put, engaged employees are proud of what they do. An engaged staff member is more likely to hold themselves to a high standard of work and express pride in what they manage to accomplish.

Discretionary effort

Highly engaged employees are more likely to go above and beyond. If someone consistently puts in overtime, or goes out of their way to help others when they aren’t required to, that’s a crystal clear sign that they’re committed to their work.

Feeling valued

Recognition goes a long way . In fact, recognition from a manager or senior leader can be even more effective than financial performance incentives. An engaged team is one that feels like a valuable part of their organisation. But it takes other people to make someone feel valued. As a manager, you should always be looking for the chance to encourage your team and praise their accomplishments.

Becoming an advocate

There’s no greater sign that an employee loves your company than if they’re hyping it up to their friends and family. Employees are your most valuable advocates. Not only do they publicize your business to potential customers, but they can also recommend you first-hand as an employer.

How to improve engagement for your team

Okay, so we’ve gone over how to spot a disengaged employee. Now, let’s look at some ways you can shore up engagement in your organisation:

Support employee wellbeing

The old notion that employees should leave their personal issues at the door is outdated. Employee wellbeing is one of the biggest priorities for managers in 2021. It’s unreasonable to expect employees struggling with physical or mental health problems to be fully engaged in their professional lives. It’s just a shame it’s taken a pandemic for some employers to realize that.

Provide development opportunities

People don’t all share the same ambitions, and not everyone’s gunning for the CEO position. But, even so, most people find the idea of a dead-end job off-putting. To ensure long-term engagement, you need to provide room for your employees to grow, learn new skills and challenge themselves.

Make employees feel valued

Disengagement often stems from a lack of appreciation. When nobody notices the effort we put in, our motivation to do it can really take a tumble. Recognition from a manager or other senior figure can really make a difference here, even more-so than financial incentives. And giving employees the means to recognise each other’s accomplishments can take some of the pressure off managers while helping to build social bonds between co-workers.

So, those are our tips for how to spot disengaged employees, and how to improve engagement in your workplace. Ultimately, the keys to an engaging workplace culture are consistent communication, honest feedback, and treating your employees like human beings.