The Hidden Costs of Disengagement

By Kelly Cave and Brie DeLisi

Imagine having a job that makes you feel excited to go to work every day. When you get to work, you feel highly energized and identify strongly with the work you are doing. Now, on the flip side, imagine having a job that makes you dread going into work every day. This job feels like it is sapping your energy, and you spend your days counting down the hours and minutes until you get to go home. Which of these jobs would you rather have?

We know from years of research that engagement is characterized as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind and is associated with beneficial outcomes for both employees and their company (Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004). It should go without saying, the costs of disengagement can be detrimental to both the employee and employer, as well.

What is Disengagement?

Research defines disengagement as separating oneself from the work role to protect physical, mental, and/or emotional health. Disengagement can manifest in many ways, including:
• Lengthy episodes of distractions
• Slow work pace
• Poor decision making
• Absence from work
• Lack of interest in work

The dangers of disengagement creep in when companies believe once they have achieved employee engagement, it is permanent. In reality, employee engagement tends to fluctuate over time (Evans & Redfern, 2010). Thus, companies should consistently be evaluating engagement, even if their employees have reported high levels in the past.
Engagement can fluctuate due to several reasons including changes in the organizational structure, communication, pressures, coworker or leader attitudes, and aligning with the overall company mission. Sometimes, these changes are just a perceived reality, and unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter if these perceived realities are ‘the truth’ – an employee’s frame on the nature of the work will impact his or her level of engagement.

Financial Burden

Estimates suggest that somewhere between 50% and 70% of the American workforce is disengaged (Attridge, 2009; Wollard, 2011). The costs of this disengagement are believed to fall somewhere between $250 and $350 billion annually (Attridge, 2009). This translates to $2,246 per disengaged employee. Clearly, employee engagement is not just a “perk,” it is essential for success.
One of the major costs of disengagement has to do with employee turnover. One study found that almost 2/3rds of highly engaged employees plan to stay with their organization for the long-term, whereas only a quarter of disengaged plan to do so (Attridge, 2009). The costs associated with higher turnover appear in the recruitment process, onboarding process, and the cost of not having a role at 100% capacity for a number of months.

Negative Employee Outcomes and Safety

Just like how the benefits of engagement impact both the company and individual employees, the negative effects of disengagement do just the same. Along with the negative financial impact turnover has on companies, disengagement also harms individual employees in terms of productivity-related outcomes, job satisfaction, perceived meaningfulness of their job, mental health, and burnout.

Disengagement has also been shown to be costly for safety. Disengaged employees are less likely to invest in, abide by, or contribute to workplace safety culture components such as the physical environment and safe work practices. Research shows that burnout leads to an inability to handle the physical and cognitive demands required to operate safely. In other words, when mental and physical resources are exhausted, employees are more likely to make mistakes and injure themselves (Nahrgang, Morgeson, & Hofmann, 2011). Injuries on the job lead to a host of additional costs including treatment for the injury and not having a position at 100% capacity.

Promoting Engagement

Luckily the data shows that one way to buffer against the safety risks associated with disengagement is by promoting engagement (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002). There are many ways companies can promote engagement; the best way for your company will depend on the specific demands faced and the resources available. Some ways to promote engagement include:
• Maintaining a purpose-driven culture to help employees see how important their role is
• Promoting pride by communicating achievements, goals, and values
• Keeping an open dialogue with employees about their experiences at work
• Giving employees control and variety within their tasks by allowing them the freedom to choose their goals, the methods of completing tasks, and the strategies in which work is approached
• Identifying risks and hazards inherent in the workplace and finding ways to mitigate those risks
• Promoting a team climate where people support one another by showing appreciation, giving people a voice, and celebrating each other’s wins
• Recognizing hard work and safe work by providing praise, monetary rewards, freedom, opportunities, or other rewards

Overall, the costs of disengagement are not only high for the organization, but also for individual employees. By promoting engagement in the workplace, employers can avoid costly turnover, subpar productivity, and safety accidents while employees enjoy higher levels of health and happiness.

At Propulo, we can help you identify potential cultural gaps that are negatively impacting your company mission, employee well-being, and the bottom line. Based on our findings, we make customized recommendations and a strategic plan backed by the latest research and years of experience.


Attridge, M. (2009). Measuring and managing employee work engagement: A review of the research and business literature. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 24(4), 383-398.

Evans, C. A., & Redfern, D. C. (2010). How can employee engagement be improved at the RRG Group? Part 1. Industrial and Commercial training, 42(5), 265-269.

Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Hayes, T. L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of applied psychology, 87(2), 268.

Nahrgang, J. D., Morgeson, F. P., & Hofmann, D. A. (2011). Safety at work: a meta-analytic investigation of the link between job demands, job resources, burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes. Journal of applied psychology, 96(1), 71.

Schaufeli, W. B., & Bakker, A. B. (2004). Job demands, job resources, and their relationship with burnout and engagement: A multi‐sample study. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 25(3), 293-315.

Wollard, K. K. (2011). Quiet desperation: Another perspective on employee engagement. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 13(4), 526-537.


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