The Stages of Employee Disengagement

Lee Waters
Posted by Lee Waters
The Stages of Employee Disengagement

Employee engagement is a critical issue for any organization regardless of size or industry. When you have high levels of employee engagement, your team is more likely to go the extra mile to meet goals and is less likely to quit. On the other hand, employee disengagement increases the risk of voluntary turnover while reducing employee performance.

Disengaged employees are more likely to underperform, refuse to show up for work, or (in extreme cases) even actively sabotage the organization in a variety of ways. Knowing how to deal with disengaged employees (or prevent disengagement) is a crucial skill for top-tier leaders.

What Is Employee Disengagement?

Employee disengagement can be described as the level of antipathy employees have towards their work or workplace. The more disengaged an employee is, the less likely they are to put in the effort needed to achieve results.

According to Gallup, as of April 2022, fully 17% of all American workers are “actively disengaged” with their work while 32% are engaged—the remaining 51% of workers are moderately disengaged.

The habits of disengaged employees may vary depending on the severity of disengagement and the reasons behind it. For example, some leaders have reported things such as increased absenteeism, higher rates of voluntary turnover, reduced productivity, insubordination, and other issues with disengaged employees.

What Causes Employee Disengagement?

The big question is “why do employees become disengaged with work?” The truth is that there are many reasons why an employee might stop engaging with their work or even become actively hostile to their employers. Some examples include:

  • A Lack of Recognition. When you spend eight or more hours a day trying to hit aggressive goals, it can be painful for your efforts to go unrecognized and unrewarded. When employees don’t get positive feedback from their leaders emphasizing their achievements, they can feel as though leadership doesn’t care about them—so why should they care about the organization?
  • Environmental/Cultural Factors. In the Gallup employee engagement article, it was stated that “Healthcare workers had the greatest engagement decline (nine points) from early 2021 to early 2022.” This can be attributed to various environmental and cultural factors—some of which are unfortunately beyond a healthcare provider’s control. For example, the COVID pandemic which placed extra stress on the healthcare system and the expansion of anti-vax rhetoric that vilified healthcare workers.
  • Lack of Career Growth. Not everyone wants to man a phone in a call center for the rest of their lives. A common reason that C2Perform’s users have cited for employee disengagement is that those employees felt there was a lack of career growth/progression opportunities in the organization. When professional growth stagnates, employees may decide to look elsewhere for career advancement or even just a change of pace from doing the same work every day.
  • Disagreements with Others in the Workplace. Interpersonal relationships between team members and with managers can have an enormous impact on employee disengagement. Disagreements can foster negative feelings and even create a hostile work environment that leaves employees feeling frustrated—driving them to become actively disengaged. It’s especially impactful when the bad blood is between employees and managers. There’s a reason why “employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bad managers” is a well-known saying.
  • Dissatisfaction with Compensation. Pay is always a concern for employees in all businesses. The average cost of living is consistently rising, but wages over the last few decades have remained largely stagnant after accounting for inflation. A report by the Economic Policy Institute stated that “from 1979 to 2018 productivity grew 69.6%, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers grew just 11.6%.” Employees who believe that they aren’t getting paid a fair wage for their work can quickly become disengaged and may seek better-paying opportunities elsewhere.
  • Overwork/Employee Burnout. Even the best, most dedicated employees can suffer from burnout. Fulfilling the same tasks day in and day out, having a lack of downtime between shifts, loss of social support/engagement, and other factors can cause stress that takes a once-great member of the team and turns them into a shadow of their former selves. Burned-out employees may become apathetic to their work—simply showing up to “punch the clock” rather than trying to achieve greater goals—because they just don’t have the emotional bandwidth/energy to remain invested.

It should be noted that this list is far from comprehensive. We’ve heard many other reasons for employee disengagement from different sources. Some of them seemed relatively innocuous while others seemed too astounding to be true.

There’s an endless variety of reasons for employees to lose motivation and engagement—which can make it difficult to account for everything. However, knowing some of the common reasons why employees become disengaged can be useful for avoiding widespread employee disengagement.

The Stages of Employee Disengagement

There are many ways to break up the different stages of employee disengagement. Some define them as points along a process or workflow like the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) while others sort them by level of severity.

We’ll focus on the level of severity to categorize the different stages of disengagement. It should be noted that these are broad categories and employees may not progress through every stage of disengagement listed in order.

Here are some descriptions of the different levels of disengagement and their symptoms, as reported by C2Perform users and other sources.

Apathy/Mild Disengagement

The majority of employees fall into this category of disengagement. Remember, Gallup noted that 32% of employees were engaged and 17% were “actively disengaged” with their work, so this category accounts for the other 51% of employees in the USA. These are the people who show up to work, do their job competently, and go home without putting in any extraordinary effort.

They aren’t motivated enough, one way or the other, to do much for or against the organization—they’re just there because it’s a living and they have bills to pay. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with having employees who aren’t super-engaged. These employees won’t go out of their way to rock the boat or disrupt operations. However, they won’t go the extra mile, either.

Apathetic or mildly disengaged employees will frequently show up for work on time, do what they can to meet their process goals, and avoid trouble. They may often be absent during optional company events or try to avoid spending more time with managers and team members than is strictly necessary (unless they have a strong interpersonal relationship with them outside of the workplace).

Employees who have been with the company without advancement too long, who see the company as a “short-term” employer, or are in the early stages of burnout may fall into this category.

Sabotage/Active Disengagement

These are the employees who are actively working against the company’s interests where possible. They will go out of their way to avoid meeting goals, may cause workplace friction within their department, and ignore performance feedback.

There are a few commonly-cited outward signs of an actively disengaged employee, such as cynical behavior, refusal to participate in meetings, or consistent unnecessary criticism of leadership. However, not every disgruntled employee makes their grievances so obvious. In extreme cases, severely disgruntled employees could commit actual criminal activity, such as embezzlement, stealing sensitive information, vandalism, or other acts—behaving mostly normally until the moment of their outburst.

Employees who feel that they’ve been actively wronged by their employer, are frustrated with their work environment, or are in contention with others in the workplace are more likely to be actively disengaged than others.  


When an employee no longer sees any value in their current job, when they believe that they can get better opportunities elsewhere, or when they feel that whatever they’re going through for work isn’t worth it, they may simply leave without fanfare.

Employee departure often starts with unexplained absences where the employee simply doesn’t show up for work before progressing to their eventual resignation. However, there are other, less obvious warning signs that an employee might be about to walk out the door.

For example, some employees might stop responding to feedback from coaching sessions or ignore email messages. Others might withdraw from team meetings and stop providing feedback since their eyes are already on the proverbial door. Different people will exhibit different warning signs of impending departure, so it’s often hard to know for sure if someone’s in a slump or is getting ready to leave.

Of course, not every employee quits because they’re disengaged with work. Some may leave when they receive a new career opportunity, because they’ve hit retirement age, or after a major life event (such as illness/injury or moving to a new home).

Ways to Prevent Employee Disengagement

One thing that we’ve heard from a lot of managers and company leaders is that they have a lot of difficulty with preventing employee disengagement. Wondering how to deal with disengaged employees? One of the best ways is to prevent disengagement in the first place whenever possible.

There are countless articles on the web with tips for improving employee engagement and preventing friction in your teams. However, some may work better than others with different employees depending on their specific needs.

Here are a few things that some C2Perform users have noticed work well for driving engagement and keeping employees both happy and productive:

Providing Recognition for Employee Achievements

One thing that a lot of people underestimate (or forget about entirely) is how important recognition is for keeping people engaged with their work. Many managers on the C2Perform platform have noticed that, by tracking employee performance metrics and giving out a simple “congratulations” to their team members whenever one of them meets or beats their goals, employee engagement rose and stayed higher.

Making Coaching Sessions Dynamic by Listening to Employee Concerns

A lot of leaders have noticed that, when they treat coaching like a simple list of things for the employee to work on improving, morale and performance doesn’t always improve. In fact, it can go the opposite direction if all the manager does is tell the employee to hit their goals. Instead, the leaders who treat coaching sessions like a two-way street—one where they share their concerns with the employee and ask for feedback—tend to produce better results.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One, it demonstrates to the employee that their feedback is important (which can be reassuring). Second, by taking feedback into account, the manager can dynamically adjust their feedback or even take action outside of the coaching session to help the employee achieve better results.

Surveying Outbound Employees

While it can be awkward to ask someone on their way out what they think of the organization—and to accept the potentially harsh criticism a heavily disengaged/disgruntled employee may provide—it’s important to understand why an employee chose to leave the organization.

For example, SHRM shared a story about a woman named Kate McFarlane who used her exit interview to vent about the issues she had been dealing with. In the article, the HR rep running the meeting had assumed the departure was about the commute, but Kate told SHRM that “I took a deep breath and let him have it. I went on for about 20 minutes about what was wrong with the firm, the department, the management, the morale, the lighting, everything.”

Eventually, McFarlane learned that several managers and that HR rep had been let go from the company after her departure—indicating that her feedback had gotten through to leadership.

Without that exit interview, the firm’s leaders may never have known just how much mismanagement in that department had been affecting employee morale, performance, and turnover.

This might not stop the outbound employee from leaving, but exit interviews/surveys can give you the info you need to keep others from becoming disengaged!

These are just a few of the things that you can do to help keep your employees engaged with work. Need tools to make communication, coaching, performance tracking, and managing employee knowledge easier so you can make your employee engagement plans a reality? Reach out to C2Perform to get started!

Topics: employee engagement strategies, strategies for employee engagement

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