Why Do People Disengage at Work?

Two people working at a desk at work

By Sam Makhoul

“A staggering 87% of people worldwide are disengaged at work.” (Gallup Poll)

Many organisations are experiencing a crisis and aren’t even aware of it. There is one truth that the poll leaves out…

Almost all people start a job with enthusiasm and excitement but end up on a path to disengagement. Work then becomes a chore and extracts the health and happiness out of them.

This is tragic because work consumes at least 70% of our waking hours.

Why Does Disengagement Happen?

Is It Because People Dislike Working?

On the contrary, we are all born with an innate desire to express ourselves by working and creating value, no matter the job. Work fulfils us, gives us purpose, builds confidence, makes us feel valued and this improves our health – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Is It Because The Workplace Is Not Good?

Not likely. Working conditions over the past two decades have improved to comfortable levels never before experienced in human history. The workplace is healthier and more comfortable than ever before. And companies are looking after their people better than ever before.

So, What Is The Real Reason Why So Many People Are Disengaged At Work? 

A business with disengaged workers

It has nothing to do with the job but everything to do with the person in the job. The sad truth is that people fail to take personal responsibility for their own engagement at work.

People’s framework for living is fundamentally broken and this leads to dysfunction in their personal life, which, over time, leads to disengagement at work.

In other words, people spoil their own engagement at work. Here’s why:

Human nature is such that people can grow to dislike and disengage from anything (even something they love and enjoy) if they neglect their health and wellbeing. Western society is locked into a pattern of perpetual obsession with one part of life to the exclusion of other parts.

Early in adulthood we focus on education and neglect our health. Then we focus on the new lover and neglect our family and friends. Then we focus on our career and neglect our lover.

Then we focus on our finances and neglect our family. Then our health suffers, our energy dips and we start to disengage at work. This intense focus on one part of our life to the exclusion of others is what leads to disengagement in all parts of our life at any given time in our life cycle.

Why is this bad? There is a symbiotic relationship between all parts of a person’s life.

Neglect one and chances are you will start to fail in the others. Think about it…

  • How can you perform at work if you are arguing with your partner at home?
  • How can you perform at work if your children are out of control?
  • How can you perform at work if you are not sleeping properly because of poor nutrition, lack of exercise, lack of sunshine and lack of social fun?

“If a person’s personal life is broken, so too will their work life.”

In their publication Firms Of Endearment, Wharton Business School discovered that companies who put purpose before profit ended up making the most profit. They outperformed the S & P 500 by a ratio of nine to one over a period of 10 years.

What that study did not show or track is the health, wellbeing and engagement of the people that worked for these firms.

  • How many of those people were still employed after 10 years?
  • How many suffered from physical illness, broken relationships and mental health issues as a result of disengagement or burnout?

“There is an inadvertent and unintentional ‘burn and churn’ of people in most companies.”

What Can Companies Do To Help?

Four women from work sitting around a table talking

The answer lies not in the workplace but at home. The answer lies not in the hands of companies; it lies in the hands of the individual that works in the company.

The answer lies not in a notion of work and life balance. That concept is as outdated as the fax machine – the answer lies in knowing how to live a complete life.

Businesses make the mistake of thinking that health and wellness perks in the office makes for a well and engaged individual; things like yoga and meditation classes, sleep pods, wellness seminars and massage. The reality is that such perks merely contribute to a pleasant and comfortable work environment.

They do not fix the underlying cause of disengagement because they do not teach people a framework for living a complete life without neglecting any of its vital parts; like nutrition, exercise, sleep, socialising, love and intimacy, family and parenting, continuous learning and emotional wellbeing.

Would You Continue To Serve Alcohol To Somebody Who Is Clearly Drunk?

Companies can help by teaching their people a framework for living. Every business has processes and systems for working but never think about teaching their people systems for a living.

And for very good reason. It’s personal. It’s awkward. It’s overstepping the mark. Or is it?

Government and business need to appreciate that the scope of OH&S needs to be broadened. There should be, and no doubt will be in the future, an obligation on business to ensure that people are not neglecting their health and personal life.

This is no different to prohibiting the service of alcohol to a person that is clearly not drinking responsibly. Is it ethical for a company to keep serving up unsustainable workloads to their people, only to sit back and watch them burnout?

Some may argue that employees have a choice to say no. And in fact, some employees may request an extra workload and should have the freedom to do so.

Right? Wrong.

Again, we return to the analogy of the drunk at the bar. Has that person lost their choice to be served more?

A better analogy is perhaps found on the football field where a person suffers a head concussion. They plead with their coach to stay on the field, but the coach and trainers make the decision to pull them off.

Should a business have that same right to send their people off the field? This may open up so many arguments on so many levels and ultimately lead to an assessment of weighing-up risk, social responsibility and a business’s right to profitability.

Smart companies, however, should see it as an opportunity. Over the long term, healthy and happy people who live a complete and holistic life are more energetic, more creative, more confident and highly engaged at work.

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