Is the Great Disengagement worse than the Great Resignation?

Evidence suggests that a massive recent uptick in resignations is related to a deeper problem in the workplace: Discontent and disengagement, some of it exacerbated by the pandemic.

By Tony Silber      

A staggering number of U.S. workers is actively seeking a new job or watching for opportunities. Forty-eight percent of workers are looking for a different job, according to recent Gallup research, and the U.S. Department of Labor reported that workplace resignations set a 20-year record in April 2021, with four million employees quitting their jobs.

An additional 3.6 million people left their jobs in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As bad as that seems, the real problem isn’t “the Great Resignation.” Instead, it might be the “Great Discontent,” Gallup says. If the job searcher (48% of the workforce, per Gallup), is a subset of disengaged workers, then disengagement is the issue—Gallup says 74% of workers are disengaged in their current jobs, according to recent Gallup research.

Disengagement is costly. Lost productivity of not engaged and actively disengaged employees is equal to 18% of their annual salary. Disengagement would cost a company of 10,000 employees with an average salary of $50,000 per worker $60.3 million a year. It costs $9,000 a year to keep each disengaged worker and between $25,000 and $100,000 to replace them.

What’s driving this lack of engagement? In a word, it’s the pandemic. The pandemic caused the economic collapse last year, in which millions were thrown out of work. The pandemic caused the mental health crises among those still working, especially in frontline jobs like health care, customer-facing services like restaurants, and first responders. And the pandemic caused people to rethink their goals. People are leaving their jobs in search of more money, NPR says, or more flexibility and more happiness. Many are rethinking what work means to them, how they are valued, and how they spend their time.

This, naturally enough, leads to the Great Discontent, as organizations were (and still are) compelled to make up for lost revenue and profit margins. The pressure on workers increases. Sometimes, they disengage.

To engage (or re-engage) workers, Gallup says, managers must fulfill 12 essential elements of engagement. “Those range from knowing what’s expected at work to having opportunities to learn and grow. And because engagement has a reciprocal relationship with well-being, engaged employees are healthier, more resilient and better performers,” Gallup says.

Engaged employees are also more loyal. One Gallup client that focused on propelling organic growth through effective workplace culture found that engagement reduces turnover in critical high-turnover roles by 36 percentage points and reduces the 100-day attrition rate by nine points.”

Most managers need help to deliver on the elements of engagement and well-being. This includes having meaningful conversations, setting expectations and creating accountability. It includes individualized performance management that helps bring out the best in employees and simultaneously establish a culture and employee experience that works for workers. Interestingly, while pay is important, it’s not by itself decisive. Pay strategies can reinforce engagement or erode it.

In the end, the pandemic fundamentally changed how work people, and it might have changed how they actually view work. The work-life balance changed. Work-life boundaries changed. For many, there was no more commute—and no desire to go back to one. It comes down to understanding what a good job feels like post pandemic. And Gallup says managers are the key.

The website Reworked, which covers the evolution of the workplace, says don’t give people a reason to resign. “During the pandemic, many employees felt that they had to endure whatever hardship or negative feelings they were having about their current employer because of the uncertainty of the economy, business closings, lockdowns and health concerns,” Reworked said.

The pandemic also took a toll on career advancement. Reworked cited a study that indicated 78% of remote workers believe their career development has been negatively affected over the past year. In addition, 30% expected promotions that were delayed or denied, and the average American remote worker estimated they lost $9,823 in promotions during the last year. More than half (53%) reported feeling burned out on a weekly basis.

Another factor: hire smarter. Finding employees who embrace the organization’s values can help increase loyalty and engagement. “Make sure you are hiring people who already do value what your brand values, and who have the potential to evolve with you,” Reworked stated.