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Amy Brown headshot

‘World’s Broken Workplaces’ Need to Prioritize Engagement

By Amy Brown
man working on laptop in shared office space - employee engagement

It's odd to think that people are nostalgic for the earlier days of COVID-19, but a new Gallup poll shows that workers miss the increased flexibility and empathy employers adopted at the start of the pandemic. Nearly 75 percent of global employees now say they are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work. Why? It seems workers feel they are once again being treated like cogs in the machine, rather than human beings.

“The world is closer to colonizing Mars than it is to fixing the world's broken workplaces,” Gallup's annual State of the Global Workplace Report put it bluntly, noting that employee engagement has reached its lowest level since 2015.

In addition, stress levels among professionals worldwide are at “an all-time high.” Gallup found that 59 percent and 56 percent of disengaged employees report experiencing stress and worry frequently at work.

Employers are missing the boat on engagement

What gives? Unfair treatment at work topped the list as the leading cause of employee disengagement, Gallup found, with an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressures close behind.

The report found the engagement elements with the most marked declines since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were:

  • Clarity of expectations
  • Connection to the mission or purpose of the company
  • Opportunities to learn and grow
  • Opportunities to do what employees do best
  • Feeling cared about at work

About 32 percent of the 67,000 full- and part-time employees surveyed were engaged in their work in 2022, while 18 percent were actively disengaged. Active disengagement has risen each year since 2020. The remaining respondents — 50 percent — were neither engaged nor actively disengaged. In the U.S. in particular, the latest data shows the lowest ratio of engaged-to-actively disengaged employees since 2013.

This is not just a U.S. phenomenon. Fewer than 2 in 10 European employees feel engaged at work — lower than any part of the world.

Millennials and Gen Z employees are even more disengaged

The trend of disengagement and job-hopping is even more pronounced among Generation Z and young millennials. This reporter did her own survey close to home: My millennial daughter, Marielle Velander, 30, has worked for several years in the tech industry, and she had a definite view on the Gallup findings.

“In today’s fast-paced tech scene, it seems like new titles and functions are being invented all the time, without clear job descriptions," she said. "This was the case with my role of product operations, a new type of role that had me reshuffled in multiple organizations amid a context of ‘organizational change’ or ‘strategy definition.’ This constant reshuffling has left me and many former colleagues disengaged and unclear about how we provide value to the organization. I kept wondering why executives did not understand the revenue-generating aspects of my role."

Her advice for business leaders looking to do things differently? “Companies should do a better job of managing change fatigue and providing clear job descriptions. They should also be more open to investing in innovative new roles, like product operations, and give these new roles a chance to show their value before folding [them] into yet another radical strategy change.”

The research bears out these observations. The top five reasons millennials leave their jobs include no opportunity for growth and feeling disengaged and under-appreciated.

millennial tech worker Marielle Velander talks engagement at work
Millennial tech employee Marielle Velander, 30. 

Managers need to be better coaches

No matter the generation, contented employees find their work rewarding and meaningful — and that happens when leaders prioritize employee well-being and engagement, Gallup found.

"Managers need to be better listeners, coaches and collaborators," researchers recommended in the Gallup report. "Great managers help colleagues learn and grow, recognize their colleagues for doing great work, and make them truly feel cared about. In environments like this, workers thrive."

Other recent research indicates the problem doesn’t lie in the trend toward more remote work, either. Some 52 percent of workers recently told the Conference Board that having a caring and empathetic leader is more important now than before the pandemic. Whether they work in an office, at home or a hybrid of both has no impact on that view, or their level of engagement, according to the survey.

There is plenty of evidence that engaged workers are a smart investment for employers. Some studies have found that engaged employees outperform their peers that are not engaged. Overall, companies with high employee engagement are 21 percent more profitable.

The risk of not taking action to engage your employees is losing talent — especially young talent — altogether. Marielle has taken a year-long break from her tech career to travel the world. As she described it: “I’m trying to realign with my purpose after feeling like I lost my agency over my career.” It would seem she is not alone.

image credit: Crew/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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