Let’s be honest: we all have days when we’re not exactly up for giving 110%. Be it because we’re struggling to complete a project, we’ve got a relaxing holiday coming up or because it’s a Friday afternoon and our eyes are firmly set on the weekend ahead.

Some degree of employee disengagement is normal. But, it seems that it’s becoming more and more of a problem, with a recent Gallup poll suggesting that worldwide, only 15% of employees are engaged with their work or employer.

How can you spot a disengaged employee?

Unengaged or disengaged employee?

Now at this stage, it’s important to make a distinction between an unengaged and disengaged employee, as they have different characteristics.

An unengaged employee is primarily there for the money: they see their job as a means to earn an income – nothing more. While often perfectly capable and happy to do the work that is allocated to them, that’s generally as far as they’ll ever go.

On the other hand, a disengaged employee may have been motivated to go that little bit beyond the call of duty in the past, but they’ve lost their drive. They’re now simply coasting along or have become apathetic towards their role and company objectives.

Unlike an unengaged employee, they’ll often have the potential to go far with their careers, but their all-important spark has gone out and requires re-igniting. So, what are the signs of a disengaged employee, and what can be done to bring them back to their best?

1. They’re lacking self-initiative

One of the most visible signs of a disengaged employee is a lack of self-initiative. Managers may notice that their once-enthusiastic employee is now doing the bare minimum, or only what they explicitly ask of them. They may have also stopped suggesting new ideas or flagging up when they’ve got time on their hands and can take on new work.

Of course, everyone goes through periods of wanting to perhaps take it a little ‘easier’ than they normally would. But if a ‘Friday afternoon’ mentality is becoming more evident, there may be something more going on that’s negatively affecting your employees’ drive.

What to do

If an employee seems to have lost their enthusiasm for work, a useful first step is to look at the data in your HR system. This could, for example, indicate if a certain manager, personnel or process change has coincided with the drop in engagement.

If there’s nothing obvious in the data, encourage the employee’s manager to sit down with them (be it in person or remotely) for a one-to-one. It’s a chance for the manager to revisit expectations and find out if anything is bothering the employee, either inside or outside of work. Simply talking about what might be getting in the way, or how to get the most from their role, may help to rekindle that vital enthusiasm.

2. They’re no longer going above and beyond

It might be the case that your disengaged employee was once a real team player, happy to help their colleagues without hesitation and relishing new responsibilities and challenges. However, if they’re now doing just ‘their role’ and no longer putting themselves forward for new projects or responsibilities, this is a classic sign of disengagement that deserves to be examined.

What to do

If employees are seemingly no longer willing to go the extra mile, it may be worth seeing if your company’s culture is failing them. For example, could it be a lack of recognition that’s leading to disengagement?

Even if you have a formal process for staff recognition, it’s easy for over-stretched line managers to forget to give credit where credit’s due. Saying thank you for achievements, no matter how small, is a brilliant way for managers to demonstrate just how much employees mean to the business. It’s essential HR teams ensure staff recognition is the norm – not the exception.

3. They’re taking unplanned time off or are rarely available

Increased absenteeism is another obvious sign of a disengaged employee. If you’re working in an office, a continually empty desk can be a dead giveaway! But, if employees are working remotely and managers notice a member of their team is missing meetings, rarely online with your chosen communication platforms or failing to respond to messages, then there’s a good chance they’re witnessing digital absenteeism.

What to do

If there’s anecdotal evidence or absence data that suggests you have a problem, it’s important to address it early.

To do this, you should raise your concerns with the employee about the amount of unplanned absence they’ve been taking. However, it’s critical you listen to what they have to say as there could be an underlying issue which is affecting them; be it a physical or mental health concern, or something else within their personal life.

Once you have a fuller picture from the employee as to what may be driving their absenteeism, you’ll be able to make an informed decision as to how you can help address it. Be it encouraging your managers to have an open and honest conversation with the employee about their role and job expectations, to evaluating whether your organisation can offer more in the way of wellbeing support should they need it.

4. They’re isolating themselves from their team or colleagues

Many of us have had to get used to working remotely or not seeing our colleagues on a day-to-day basis. However, if employees who were once talkative and socialised regularly (be it online or in person) suddenly become withdrawn or noticeably less involved with the rest of their team, there’s a possibility they’ve become disengaged.

What to do

Just asking why a specific employee is distancing themselves from their colleagues can be a difficult subject to discuss. After all, we have to respect that some people may just want to step back a bit from their work lives.

However, if a concern has been raised about a specific individual, it’s really important that HR takes the lead in meeting with them. An employee withdrawing from their role and team could indicate a significant underlying problem, such as bullying, that they may not feel comfortable discussing with their line manager.

From a wider perspective, gaining regular feedback from your employees about your company’s culture is a must. Doing this means you can get a truer picture of what your business is like to work for, and whether there are negative aspects to your company’s culture (such as poor working practices, management or job satisfaction) that could cause employees to withdraw from their roles.

5. The quality of their work has fallen

Lastly, an employee who’s become disengaged may have been delivering a consistently high quality of work in the past, but that standard has slipped. They’ve perhaps started missing key deadlines or objectives and are making too many mistakes.

What to do

HR should encourage team leaders to have regular catchups and more formal performance review meetings with their staff. These provide ideal opportunities for managers to ask disengaged employees to be honest about what could be affecting their work – and what would help them get back on track.

That way, managers and team leaders can not only develop a plan together to address the root cause, but also set achievable goals that’ll provide something tangible, realistic and motivational for the employee to work towards.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.