7 Signs of Disengaged Employees and How to Motivate Them

Signs Of Disengaged Employees


However large or small your company, you’re certain to have a few disengaged employees from time to time. While this is completely normal, a high number of employees feeling disengaged at work is often an indicator of a more serious problem in the workplace. In fact, you might be surprised to learn how much disengaged employees cost your business each year. 

In this article, we’re going to explore the 7 habits of highly disengaged employees, helping you to spot the warning signs early so you can prevent disengagement from escalating into decreased productivity, high rates of staff turnover or a toxic working environment. We’ll also advise you on how to re-engage disengaged employees, creating a motivated and productive workforce.


What are disengaged employees?

Disengaged employees are those who tend to lack enthusiasm and commitment to their work. They may struggle with motivation, miss deadlines, show little interest in the team, and avoid taking initiative. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘quiet quitting’, with disengaged employees only doing the bare minimum to fulfil their duties.

Disengagement can lead to lower productivity and higher staff turnover, and can create a negative vibe in the workplace. Spotting employees who are feeling disengaged at work and addressing the issue early can help to maintain a motivated, efficient and positive workforce. In many cases, disengaged employees have the potential to go far in their careers but have just lost motivation for their job. With the right support, they can be transformed into valuable members of the team.

How much do disengaged employees cost?

In their 2023 State of the Global Workplace Report, analytics and advisory firm Gallup found that nearly 6 in 10 employees are feeling disengaged at work. Taking into account decreased productivity, higher turnover rates and the associated recruitment and training costs, they estimate that this costs the global economy $8.8 trillion dollars, which is 9% of global GDP. When scaled to individual organisations, the cost is of course much lower, but it can still be devastating for SMBs that require smaller, more efficient teams to succeed. 

However, it’s not just the financial cost that businesses need to consider. Disengaged employees can negatively impact team morale, reduce overall productivity and contribute to an unpleasant working environment. Their lack of enthusiasm can spread to others, potentially leading to further disengagement across the team, and stunting innovation within the industry. Addressing disengagement is therefore crucial for maintaining a healthy and dynamic workplace that’s able to thrive. 

The difference between unengaged and disengaged employees

Before we look into how to re-engage disengaged employees, it’s important to understand the difference between those who are feeling disengaged at work, and those who are simply unengaged. This will help you to find the right solutions to address the issues within your workforce.

While disengaged employees are unhappy and unmotivated at work, unengaged employees are content in their roles but primarily view work as a means to earn a paycheck. They’re happy to carry out their duties and have a positive attitude, although they’re unlikely to take on extra responsibilities or go beyond their assigned duties. Unengaged employees don’t actively harm the working environment, but they can prevent your organisation from reaching its full potential.

7 habits of highly disengaged employees & how to address them

Let’s take a look at the 7 habits of highly disengaged employees, and how you can address them to increase the engagement and productivity of your workforce.

1. Decreased productivity

A major sign that an employee is disengaged at work is reduced productivity. This may be reflected in missed deadlines, spending too much time on unrelated tasks, or a decrease in the amount of the work they produce. Disengaged employees lack focus and drive, which means that they’re less committed to working efficiently and maximising their output.

How to address low productivity

Addressing low productivity starts with understanding the underlying cause. While it could be caused by disengagement, there are many other factors that could cause a drop in productivity. Take the time to sit down with the employee to discuss why their productivity has dropped. Getting to understand their perspective can help you to identify the right solutions to effectively improve their performance.

2. They lack initiative

Disengaged employees often lack initiative. They may do the bare minimum, avoid asking for additional work, or stop suggesting new ideas. This comes from a lack or loss of interest, leading to diminished enthusiasm and drive. It’s important to address this issue early, as engaged workers may start to question why they’re bothering to put in the effort when others aren’t.

How to address a lack of initiative

Aim to reignite the employee’s passion for their job by rewarding hard work and valuing their contributions. Recognising and appreciating their efforts can motivate them to take more initiative and engage more deeply with their work. It’s also a good idea to ensure open lines of communication, such as conducting an employee satisfaction survey to identify which areas of the business and their roles employees struggle to connect with. 

3. Withdrawal from the team

Another sign of feeling disengaged at work is withdrawing socially from the team. Disengaged employees might avoid attending team socials, take longer to respond to messages, or frequently sit alone in the workplace. Social withdrawal can impact team cohesion and morale, spreading a lack of productivity throughout the team.

How to address social withdrawal

Addressing social withdrawal in the workplace requires sensitivity. The underlying causes could be internal, such as mental health challenges, or external, such as bullying or a negative company culture. It’s often best to involve your HR team to ensure a professional, sympathetic approach to finding the root cause of the withdrawal and providing support. 

4. Lack of interest in learning and development

Disengaged employees often show a lack of interest in learning and development. They may stop attending training sessions, stop asking for more challenges, or cease taking pride in their work. As well as hindering their career growth, this can have a negative effect on progress and innovation in the organisation.

How to address a low interest in learning and development

Communicating with employees about their career aspirations can help you to align their roles with what they’d like to achieve. This will give you a better understanding of what drives and motivates them, making it easier for you to provide the necessary opportunities and deliver engaging development initiatives.

5. The quality of their work has dropped

A decline in work quality is a common indicator of an employee being disengaged at work. This can be seen not only in their output but also in their work ethic. The most telling sign is if an employee who previously produced high-quality work starts delivering subpar results, particularly if they show no improvement after being made aware of the issue.

How to address low-quality work

To address low-quality work, you first need to understand the underlying reason for the decline. Open communication is essential, and can help you to highlight wider issues in the workplace that could be affecting other workers. Holding regular performance review meetings to set clear goals and expectations can help in guiding disengaged employees back to their previous high standards.

6. Increased absenteeism

Absenteeism is a clear sign of disengagement, often marked by increased sick days and unexplained absences. This not only affects the individual’s work but also impacts the team’s productivity and morale. There are lots of different reasons for employee absenteeism, many of which are indicative of deeper issues within the organisation. 

How to address employees taking excessive time off

Rather than jumping straight to disciplinary action, it’s important to have a conversation with the disengaged employee to uncover the reason behind their absences. This dialogue can help them feel supported, making them more likely to open up and provide actionable insights on how to re-engage disengaged employees. For example, implementing duvet days could provide workers with the flexibility they need to return to work feeling more motivated. 

7. A negative attitude

A negative attitude is common among disengaged employees. They may express negativity towards the business and other employees, which can affect team morale and create an unpleasant workplace atmosphere. Such attitudes can be contagious, spreading disengagement among other team members. 

How to address a negative attitude

It’s crucial for employees to voice their opinions, and equally important for employers to listen and actually address the concerns raised. Creating an open environment where feedback is valued can help you to identify and resolve issues contributing to a negative attitude, fostering a more positive and engaged workplace.

How to motivate disengaged employees

Now you’ve got a good understanding of the signs of disengagement in the workplace, let’s explore how to motivate disengaged employees.

Ask for and listen to feedback

The best way to find out what your employees are thinking and experiencing is to ask them for feedback about company culture and management practices. Providing regular opportunities for feedback will help you to identify the root causes of disengagement, resulting in actionable insights into motivating your employees. 

This proactive approach helps in creating a more supportive and responsive working environment, which should minimise the risk of employees feeling disengaged at work in the first place. It’s important to actually address the issues raised to ensure that employees feel listened to and respected. Make sure to communicate your findings and any initiatives put in place in response to employee feedback. 

Recognise hard work

Disengagement often occurs when employees don’t feel appreciated for their work. Recognising their efforts can help workers to feel valued within the team, leading to an increase in engagement and motivation. Regularly showing appreciation for your employees fosters a positive workplace atmosphere and drives continuous improvement.

You might choose to acknowledge hard work through team and company-wide shoutouts, offering performance-based bonuses, or organising social events to celebrate completed projects. All of these actions can help to make employees feel valued and encourage them to maintain high levels of performance.

Organise frequent check-ins and set goals

Regular check-ins with disengaged employees are essential to monitor their progress and identify additional support needs. Employee appraisals provide the ideal opportunity for these interactions. Remember to give workers a chance to share their thoughts so they can feel heard and provide any insights that can help you to prevent other employees from feeling disengaged at work. 

During these appraisals, set clear goals to provide employees with specific objectives to work towards. This not only helps to provide a short-term focus but also aligns their efforts with the company’s objectives, creating a more cohesive and engaged workforce. 

Impact of disengaged employees on team dynamics

Disengaged employees can have a negative impact on others within their team, as well as affecting productivity throughout the wider organisation. If not handled properly, decreased productivity, unprofessional attitudes and a lack of pride in their work can spread throughout the workforce, leading to further employee disengagement.

If a disengaged employee is failing to meet their deadlines or produce adequate work, it may create an increased workload for other employees. This can cause frustration and resentment, contributing to strained relationships and a lower quality of work all round, creating a vicious cycle of employee disengagement.

Similarly, employees who are disengaged at work may withdraw from the team, causing tension and communication issues that can hinder productivity and contribute to an unpleasant working environment.

Keep employees engaged with performance review software

Keeping employees engaged can be challenging, as each individual has their own goals, challenges and motivations that need to be understood to optimise engagement. It’s also an ongoing process that requires continual attention, as failing to address factors that are causing employees to feel disengaged at work can be extremely damaging to morale and productivity. 

Using tools like performance review software can help you to identify how to re-engage disengaged employees by: 

  • Providing clear insights into employee performance 
  • Making it easier to identify disengaged employees 
  • Providing access to performance review data, goals and KPIs in one place 
  • Benchmarking employee performance 
  • Supporting a continual, proactive approach to employee engagement 

PeopleHR can help you to keep employees engaged and motivated, providing intuitive HR software solutions designed to support communication so your organisation can thrive. Sign up for a free trial to see how we can support your business. 

Sheldon Walker
By Sheldon Walker New Business Sales Representative

Sheldon is a New Business Sales professional with Access PeopleHR. He is dedicated to helping SMBs thrive in today's competitive landscape. With over 5 years of experience in SAAS and HR software products, he has provided numerous clients with the tools to make their life easier. Sheldon's passions lie in helping clients achieve their goals and giving them the freedom to do more.