Disengaged Workers

work, anxiety

It’s Sunday night and you are filled with a sense of listlessness.


Because tomorrow is Monday and you hate your job. You didn’t always hate it. Work was once important to you so this lethargy is confusing. How could you go from loving what you do to feeling negative, bored and lethargic about it?

It’s called disengagement.

When people are disengaged from their jobs, work becomes a daily grind. Slowly their morale suffers. What was enjoyable isn’t anymore. Work is anticipated with loathing or apathy.

Low engagement or disengagement is present when an employee no longer feels his or her job is fulfilling, stimulating, interesting or rewarding. This can occur regardless of the job, the salary or the type of work. Disengagement may feel like boredom. The job, once relished, now reminds the employee of walking a treadmill.

Disengagement can hit anytime. Many believe that people with exciting jobs, big pay cheques, authority and influence don’t suffer disengagement. It’s a myth that disengagement at work is the reserve of low paying “McJobs”. Disengagement can strike the most committed, dedicated employee in any sphere of organizational life, from the mailroom to the executive suite.

Employees who “check out” cost the company in decreased productivity, reduced efficiency and creativity. They bring down morale. For employees, the costs are physical, emotional and personal.

There are five signs of low engagement at work:

1. Feeling Unenthusiastic About Your Work

When you feel disengaged at work, you’ll experience a sense of drudgery and listlessness. You feel like you are doing a half-hearted job and that you can’t look forward to anything. The work isn’t as interesting as it used to be and there’s little sense of pleasure in daily tasks. The sense of accomplishment you may have once felt dwindles and there appears to be no reason to do anything with gusto. At times, you may also feel distracted or as if you’re merely going through the motions. You look forward to quitting time as the main event each day.

Many people believe that they are experiencing this lack of enthusiasm privately. However, in many cases others – co-workers, customers and suppliers notice it and feel short-changed. They may even comment. This is especially true when disengaged staff are in service positions. The feeling that they couldn’t care less pervades their work, their attitude and the tone they use with customers. But, low engagement is not indifference, nor is it that staff don’t care. Disengagement is a feeling of having lost one’s commitment, desire or passion for the job.

2. Feeling Isolated and Lonely

People who experience low engagement on the job often feel disconnected from co-workers and don’t nurture friendships with colleagues. Some may have lost a work friend due to promotion, layoffs or retirement. They hide their feelings of isolation and loneliness. Only family or close friends outside of work know about the staff person’s feelings. If you feel disengaged you might find yourself not contributing at meetings or only volunteering to do the bare minimum, if at all. You may feel you lack influence and can’t do the job you were hired to do due to lack of resources, support or authority. This can be demoralizing and sap your energy for the job.

3. Having a Strained Relationship With The Supervisor

You may have the experience of drifting when it comes to the relationship with your supervisor, a sense of no support and even neglect. He or she doesn’t seem interested in you as a person or in your development. The expectation is that you’ll just do your job and as long as the work gets done. You may be left to your own devices a great deal and wonder if you matter. Feeling like a number is common. Or, the relationship with your boss is rocky, he or she doesn’t operate fairly, criticizes, acts unilaterally with deleterious effects on your ability to do your job. Maybe you have been passed over for promotion.

4. Feelings of Guilt

When staff feel like they aren’t or can’t give their all, they may feel guilty or ashamed. This is especially true if staff have a work ethic that pushes them to achieve and excel, and not give up. Feeling disengaged when your value system puts a premium on working hard results in a conflict between how you really feel and how you think you should feel. This tension is draining and emotionally exhausting.

5. Experiencing Physical and Emotional Issues

Symptoms of disengagement can include sleeplessness, loss of appetite or, conversely, the desire to sleep a lot or overeat. You may have headaches, backaches, lack energy or suffer gastrointestinal problems. You may abuse alcohol to de-stress at the end of another seemingly meaningless day. You may feel irritable, sad or overwhelmed. Some people feel depressed or anxious while others spend their time looking for another job, sending out resumes and hiding these activities from their employer. The stress of not wanting your current job but being unable to make changes that might make you happier can take its toll mentally, emotionally and physically.

Disengaged workers affect a company while disengagement takes its toll on staff. Fighting to re-engage is key. In our next column, we will discuss how to begin to re-engage at work and how to assess whether it’s worth the effort.

Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality. Dr. Newman can be contacted at: info@drjennifernewman.com 

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