The true cost of disengagement at the workplace

People spend at least 45 hours of the 168 hours in a week at their place of work. The expectation is that those hours should be meaningful to employees, that employees are achieving their goals and that they experience positive emotions while at work.
Yet research by global performance-management consulting company Gallup shows that only 13% of employees across 142 countries are “engaged” in their work while 87% of workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”.

This means that globally only 13% of the workforce is emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organisations every day. The rest are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive.

Actively disengaged employees continue to outnumber engaged employees by nearly two to one. This implies that at the global level, work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfilment.

“It also means countless workplaces worldwide are less productive and less safe than they could be and are less likely to create badly needed new jobs,” the 2013 Gallup State of the Global Workplace survey found.

The South African picture

Things are even worse in South Africa. Only 9% of the workforce are engaged, 46% are not engaged and 45% are actively disengaged.

East Asia has the lowest proportion of engaged employees in the world, at 6%. The regional finding is driven predominantly by results from China, where 6% of employees are engaged in their jobs.

Kerstin Jatho, positive psychology life coach at 4Seeds, says that employees choose how they approach work.
“People choose to be engaged by bringing their head, hand and heart to work. Very often people only bring their head and hands to work,” she says. 

“To bring your heart to work, you really have to believe in the values and culture of the organisation. Your work really has to excite you.

 Being proud of your company certainly helps with the choice to be engaged or not.”

The Gallup survey singles out the mining industry in South Africa. The industry, an important source of employment in the country, has been plagued by violent and destabilising labour unrest.

Jatho says there are many sectors where there is distrust between the workforce and the company. The mining industry has been particularly problematic because of all the players and the type of work involved.
People are seeing a lot of retrenchments. The working environment is dangerous. The horror of the Marikana massacre, where the South African Police Service opened fire on a crowd of striking mineworkers, killing 34 and wounding 78 others, has not faded.

“The industry is actually at a level where the issues can no longer be ‘band-aided’ to fix a very broken body. It is a hard industry to be in.

There is not a lot of joy there. There is no simple answer, but it is about having the courage to do something.”

She says people need flexibility, room for creativity, and the ability to collaborate with colleagues. People like to be challenged. They want to do meaningful work and know who benefits from what they are doing.

Jatho explains that for many years the main aim of organisations has been to make profits. This has not really changed, but people have. It is no longer enough to work at the same company until retirement and to simply earn a salary.

She says it is fairly easy to spot the engaged worker from the disengaged one. Jatho tells of the cleaning staff at a hospital who regularly changed the pictures hanging on the walls of the wards.
When asked by one of the nurses why they were doing this, they said they’d done it to alleviate patients’ boredom, making sure that they didn’t have to lie in bed for days looking at the same pictures.
“We all have a purpose, even if it is only to help others achieve something,” says Jatho.
It will be a fallacy to believe that everybody can be completely engaged at the workplace. However, if the number of disengaged people can be helped to become semi-engaged, imagine the difference it will make.

Disengagement is expensive

“Remember, disengaged employees are expensive. You are paying a 100% salary but you are not getting 100% output,” says Jatho.
Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs the US in the region of $450bn to $550bn per year. In Germany, it ranges from €112bn to €138bn ($151bn to $186bn) per year.

In the UK, actively disengaged employees cost the country between £52bn and £70bn ($83bn and $112bn) per year.

Engaged employees are the ones who are most likely to drive innovation, growth, and revenue that their companies desperately need, Gallup’s research found.

They conceive new products and services, generate new ideas, attract new customers, and ultimately help spur the economy into generating more good jobs.

Vigilant leadership 

Jatho says leaders have to be vigilant to notice when they are “losing” a worker and have a discussion with them: “The honest conversation with the employee is not about why the person is not performing, or threatening him with disciplinary action.That will only lead to more disengagement.” 

According to her, bosses should establish where the person got lost and what can be done to bring him back, whether he is still in the right place in the company, or whether it is better to part ways.

“Leaders often shy away from these honest conversations – hoping the situation will resolve itself. Normally it does not,” she comments.

Gallup’s research has found that managers are primarily responsible for their employees’ engagement levels.

Organisations should coach managers to take an active role in building engagement plans with their employees, hold managers accountable, track their progress, and ensure they continuously focus on emotionally engaging their subordinates.

This article originally appeared in the 10 August edition of finweekBuy and download the magazine here.

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