Employee Engagement Employee Retention

9 root causes of employee disengagement – and how to address them

When it comes to disengaged employees, prevention is better than cure.

While you should do what you can to re-engage disengaged employees, there’s always a danger that you’re fighting a losing battle. When someone is no longer invested in their work, or has lost trust in your organization, it can be hard to find a way back.

Rather than wait until this happens, it’s far more effective to focus on identifying any problems within your company and its culture that might cause employees to become disengaged in the first place. If you can mitigate some of these issues, you’ll stand a better chance of keeping your people motivated, satisfied, and invested in your company.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the most common reasons for low employee engagement, and how people leaders can tackle them.

What causes employee disengagement, and how can people leaders help?

Disengagement is a broad term that can apply to employees experiencing any number of circumstances, which your company will have varying degrees of control over.  

Some disengaged employees will arrive at that point as a result of decisions and actions taken by the company and its leadership, while others become disengaged due to individual relationships with colleagues or their managers. 

In other cases, what causes low employee engagement will be more related to external factors, either in an individual's personal life or within society as a whole.

While you can’t prevent all of these problems from cropping up, you can use your role as a people leader to put processes, supports, and policies in place that reduce their chances of occurring. And even when they do, there are things that you can do to help support your employees and leaders, and at least limit how much they affect engagement and job satisfaction.

9 common causes of employee disengagement

Here’s a few of the most common factors that contribute to or become a cause of employee disengagement, and what you can do in these situations to help.

1. Changes in responsibilities

It might seem like an obvious thing to say, but most of your employees accepted their positions because they wanted the role you outlined in their job description, not something different entirely. 

The problem is that an organization’s needs change over time, and what your company needs today might not be the same as what it needs in six months or a year’s time. As a result, an employee’s responsibilities and role might need to be redefined to fit how your organization is evolving. 

Which is all well and good for the company, but not necessarily the employee. If they suddenly find themselves doing things outside of their comfort zone, forced to shelve projects and initiatives they were passionate about,  or just working on things they’d rather not be working on, they won’t be happy for long. 

And who could blame them? If you feel like your work isn’t enjoyable anymore, or isn’t helping you grow as a professional, or just isn’t what you’re good at, it can start to feel like it’s just not worth it.

How you can help

In a lot of cases, the reason employees find their roles being redefined is because of poor hiring strategies. 

Too often, leaders and managers fail to properly define what they are looking for in an employee. They also tend to focus too much on their immediate needs rather than long-term goals. This means they end up hiring employees who are either poor fits for their roles to begin with, or end up not fitting down the line. 

Encourage your leadership to see the big picture when hiring, and think not just about what the company needs now, but what they might need in the future.

Of course, hiring isn’t an exact science, and these kinds of situations can arise regardless of how good your process is. Changes in employees’ roles can also be the result of other factors, such as changes in leadership, other employee departures, or market conditions. 

When an employee's role has changed or will need to change, be proactive about addressing it with them, even if they haven’t given you any indication that they are dissatisfied. Either you or their manager should ask them whether they are comfortable with their new responsibilities, and encourage them to voice any concerns they have. 

If they aren’t happy with the change, work with their manager to see if you can find a solution that will work for both sides. If that isn’t possible, be direct with the employee about it, and clear about why the changes are necessary. 

Of course, in some cases, the employee may ultimately want to seek out a different position. But that’s probably best for everyone, and it’s far better to address the problem transparently so that the employee leaves on good terms. 


2. Changes in Leadership

Following on from the previous point, changes in responsibilities can often arise from changes in leadership, which can be one of the biggest reasons for low employee engagement. According to Gallup, managers account for as much as 70% of variances in engagement, which means who is leading your employees can have just as much bearing on their job satisfaction as what they are doing.

When a department manager, supervisor, or even a high-level executive is replaced, your employees suddenly have to deal with a new leader with different priorities, processes, and management approaches. 

This can be incredibly jarring for your people, especially if they were very fond of their old management. They might find that projects they were enthusiastic about are dropped, or their roles are restructured, or that they just don’t work as well with the new leader. If they start to feel like what they liked about your work environment has changed, they will start to feel disillusioned.

How you can help

One of the main things an HR professional can do to make sure leadership changes don’t affect employee engagement is to try and make sure your company has a clear idea of what it looks for in leaders. 

While there can always be some room for managers with different personalities and styles, everyone in a leadership role at your company should at least approach their work in a way that aligns with your core values and company culture. If you can get this right, it will go a long way to ensuring employees don't suddenly become disillusioned with a new leader.

Change management is another area where you can offer valuable support. If you’re bringing external leaders into established teams, make sure they are brought up to speed about the inner workings and nuances of your culture and their department from day one. If you’re promoting from within, give your new managers training, particularly if they are stepping into management positions for the first time. Anything you can do to make the transition smoother will help to reduce any chance of it creating unrest.


3. Lack of Ownership

While employees want guidance, direction, and support, they also need to feel trusted by their leaders. And this usually means having a certain amount of ownership over their work. 

Employees who feel empowered in their roles will usually bring more energy and enthusiasm to them, find more creative solutions to problems, and be more likely to take risks.

If, on the other hand, you treat them like they need constant supervision, things will go downhill fast, and micromanagement is often one of the biggest causes of employee disengagement. Employees who are given the freedom to use their own initiative and judgment will do so. Employees who aren’t will simply do what they’re asked, and not a whole lot more.

How you can help

Employees who feel a lack of ownership over their work usually feel that way as a result of suboptimal management. 

This isn’t to say that their managers are intentionally limiting them. In a lot of cases, a manager will give their team a lot of direction because they want to make sure that they feel comfortable and equipped in their roles. The issue is that this kind of careful guidance often removes a lot of the room employees have to make their own decisions and make their roles their own.

The pressure that managers are under to deliver results can play a part, too. The more afraid they are to fail, the less freedom they will give to their team. 

From an HR perspective, the best way to prevent this is to train managers to empower their teams, and to make sure they are all aligned in approaching their roles in a way that is consistent with your company’s leadership philosophy.

4. Heavy workloads

There’s no quicker way to turn a highly engaged employee into a disengaged employee than by overloading them with work. One of the biggest mistakes that leaders make with highly productive team members is they start to take their exceptional performance for granted, and assume it’s okay to give them more than their fair share of tasks.

The worst part is that a highly engaged employee will often be more than willing to take this extra work on at first, only to burn themselves out because they didn’t realize their own limitations.

How you can help

Give them less work! It might sound overly simplistic, but if you suspect employee workloads are becoming unmanageable, you should speak to your managers and try to figure out ways to take things off people’s plates. 

This might mean reevaluating your staffing needs, reducing expectations, dropping projects, or just encouraging some staff members to delegate more. 

You might meet some resistance from managers, or even employees themselves. When there’s a lot to be done, it can be difficult to convince dedicated team members to scale back and put certain things on the backburner. 

But sooner or later, something has to give. Overworking isn’t just a root cause of employee disengagement, it’s a root cause of burnout and other physical and mental health issues. Your employees need to take care of themselves before they can take care of their work.

5. Market challenges

This is one to be particularly mindful of in the current economic climate. When times are tough, employees can often become demoralized. 

No matter how talented your team is, and how engaged they are, they will still find it challenging to get results in a tough economy or competitive marketplace. The worst part is that no matter how much they might try to turn things around, it doesn’t always work. For example, a sales team can work round the clock to try and land clients for a company, but they will still close very few deals if the demand for their product simply isn’t there. 

When you feel like you’re working really hard and it still isn’t paying off, it can be difficult to keep going. This can become even worse if the company’s situation is becoming seriously precarious, and there are question marks about its survival or employees’ job security.

How you can help

When times are tough, employers often make the mistake of trying to get tough, too. Leaders will often adopt the mindset that their people are ‘lucky to have their jobs’, and should be doubling their efforts and dedication to the company.

The problem with this mindset is that when your company is struggling, your employees struggle, too. They will be worried about their jobs and their livelihoods, and this stress along with increased pressure from management usually leads to poorer performance, rather than the opposite. 

If you want to motivate them to dig deep, they need to feel there will be a reward for it, not that they are fighting a losing battle. When they see your company start to struggle, most of your team are more likely to start updating their resumes than worry about how to save you. 

If you want them to keep the faith, it’s up to your leaders to inspire their confidence. Encourage your senior leadership to always be as open and transparent about your situation as possible in both good times and bad. Open communication can help your leaders quell any unfounded fears your employees might have, and communicate their strategies to navigate business challenges. Doing this can go a long way towards convincing your team to stick with you, and to dig deep to help you achieve the results you need.

6. Larger organizational issues

This is another factor to be mindful of in the current landscape, as companies in difficult situations can also face organizational challenges that make employees' jobs much harder. If your people have to deal with staffing issues, budget cuts, or problems with internal organization or politics, all of this can impact their morale, and ultimately cause disengagement.

How you can help

This can be one of the hardest causes of employee disengagement to mitigate against. Every company has problems, and these issues can often come up unexpectedly. A star employee could leave, or your investors could ask you to cut costs, or a one-off incident could create problems for team members.

What you can do, though, is make sure you and your leadership have plans and policies in place to manage crises as they come up. This could include things like crisis communication plans, policies for dealing with conflicts between employees, and long-term succession planning for key roles. The more prepared you are for the worst, the easier it will be to deal with it when it comes. 

If your employees see that you handle difficult situations with transparency, accountability, and decisiveness, it might even strengthen their confidence in your company, rather than erode it.

7. Lack of growth opportunities

No employee likes to feel like their job is a dead end. If they feel there are no opportunities to advance at your company, disengagement can quickly become a problem.

This doesn’t just mean promotions or pay raises. It also means giving your employees support to learn, develop new skills, and take on new projects. If you don’t provide these kinds of opportunities, they won’t feel challenged, and quickly start to see no future at your company.

How you can help

This is one root cause of employee disengagement that people leaders can really impact. Spearheading initiatives like learning and development plans, creating collaborative career paths with employees, and even just encouraging managers to give their people more new responsibilities can all help keep your team invested.

One thing to keep in mind is that you should have a number of routes to advancement. Not everyone wants to become a manager or a supervisor, nor are they necessarily suited to it. Providing alternative ways for your employees to grow can be crucial to making sure you don’t lose valuable individual contributors.


8. Lack of appreciation

Statistics show that 43% of people cite a lack of recognition as their main reason for leaving a job, making it one of the leading causes of disengagement. 

If your employees don’t feel like the work they do is valued by your leadership and their colleagues, it’s only a matter of time before they stop valuing it themselves, and either mentally check out or leave your company altogether.

How you can help

Make sure they feel recognized! Whether it means implementing a recognition program like Guusto or finding other ways to show your appreciation, you should always do your utmost to make sure your employees feel fully appreciated for everything they do.

A good way to keep track of this is through surveys. If you are running regular engagement or pulse surveys, include questions asking employees if they feel recognized, and track your answers over time so you can see if your score is slipping.

9. Personal issues

Sometimes, the root cause of employee disengagement will have nothing to do with your company at all. Work is just one facet of your employees’ lives, and external factors can cause them to lose focus on their careers.

This could include anything from mental health issues, to family problems, or even just distractions arising from other personal responsibilities or life events, like planning a wedding or moving house. 

When other things in their lives are demanding their attention, it can be hard for employees to be fully engaged in their work.

How you can help

While you obviously can’t protect your employees from everything life might throw at them, you can ensure that your company offers them as much support as possible so that they can deal with whatever comes.

Offering flexible work arrangements, health and wellness plans, parental leave policies, and other benefits can all go a long way towards giving your employees peace of mind in their personal lives, so that they can come to work fully engaged and ready to give their all.

What else can cause low employee engagement?

Keep in mind that this isn’t an exhaustive list. What causes employee disengagement often depends on your organization’s circumstances and the individual personalities involved, and you could find that any problems you are experiencing are the result of something entirely different or unexpected.

The key to understanding the specific root causes of disengagement at your organization is to listen to your employees, and fully understand what motivates them. You also need to have the courage to take an honest look at your company’s culture and practices, and not shy away from having difficult conversations or proposing radical changes if that’s what’s needed. At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility as a people leader to make your company better. While it isn’t always easy, it’s worth it in the long run.

Make employee disengagement a thing of the past

Whatever the reasons for low employee engagement at your organization, they will usually come down to a need for a more focused, strategic approach to building your culture. But where do you start? And how do you make the case for change to your leadership?

In our free guide, Culture is the Ultimate Advantage, we detail our model for creating a great culture that not only engages your employees, but drives gains in the bottom-line outcomes your leaders care about. Fill out the form below to access your copy:

Culture is the Ultimate Advantage

Set yourself apart using the power of company culture. Stand out to new applicants and motivate your team to do their best work.

Noah Warder

Written by Noah Warder

Noah is the Head of People at Guusto and loves sharing his insights, experience and knowledge when it comes to HR and People practices. He is always up for a conversation on how best to support employees to make safe and inclusive work cultures.

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