Remote burnout: How to recognize when people disengage

As your employees adjust to remote work, you may notice signs of fatigue and burnout among some. Here’s how to spot disengagement and address it
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If you’re in a leadership role in an organization, you understand the importance of having an engaged workforce. Perhaps you’ve even had to manage some employees who were doing as little as possible, barely mustering up enough energy to service your customers.

If your employees were barely engaged in their normal work environment, chances are they’re even less so now that they are working remotely.

[ For more advice, read How to lead in the age of newly remote teams. ]

Why have your employees checked out?

The bad news: Whatever was undermining your team’s motivation and engagement pre-pandemic is probably still there. In most cases, employee demotivation stems from one (or more) of these five sources:

  • Stress
  • Differences between individuals
  • Organizational culture
  • Conflicts with co-workers
  • Relationships with bosses

Notice that stress tops the list. If stress wasn’t already causing disengagement for your employees, it is now.

Let’s face it: The uncertainty of this pandemic, the economy, and the health and safety of loved ones can cause anxiety in even the most unflappable among us. And if communications were already strained in your department — due to organizational culture, conflicts with co-workers, or leadership styles — social distancing will almost certainly amplify those challenges.

The uncertainty of this pandemic, the economy, and the health and safety of our loved ones can cause anxiety in even the most unflappable among us.

Even the most engaged and committed members of your team are dealing not only with these factors, but also trying to work amidst distractions at home.

As a leader, you have two important tasks in dealing with demotivation: To notice it as soon as it starts, and to address it quickly.

Recognizing disengagement

First, let’s learn to identify it. How can you tell if your employees are becoming disengaged?

  • They contribute or produce less. This is the most obvious sign that something is wrong. If the problem is not demotivation, it soon will be, because whatever is impeding productivity is likely outside their control, which worsens the problem.
  • They are present but not engaged. They may attend meetings, but they do not actively participate. They speak only when spoken to and their responses are minimal and cursory.
  • They avoid interaction and voluntary activities. If meetings or activities are optional, they will opt out. This is especially troubling when you see this pattern in a team member who previously participated.
  • Their interactions and attitude are generally negative in tone. This is a sign of active disengagement, which is worse than passive disinterest. When someone is actively disengaged, they are angry and upset – and they want to be sure that others know it. They tend to form coalitions of others who are also angry and upset, and this energizes their frustrations. In some extreme cases, they may even actively sabotage work or engage in other counterproductive behaviors. It’s essential to address such situations quickly, before too much damage is done.

Next steps

If you have interacted frequently and regularly with your team members, you are more likely to notice changes in their behavior, even subtle ones. They may simply tell you when they feel something is interfering with their motivation. But it’s also possible that they won’t recognize the issue right away, or they may not feel comfortable sharing the problem with you.

If that’s the case, they may appreciate the opportunity to meet with you privately on a regular basis to discuss any issues they may be struggling with. It is especially useful to initiate such conversations during stressful times such as we are now experiencing.

If a team member acknowledges to you that their motivation is waning, help them sort out their options. Don’t try to take on solutions yourself – think of yourself as a coach, helping them remove barriers or address organizational challenges. Keep in mind that you are empowering them by helping them conquer their own frustrations.

These days, many things have changed about how we all think of work. Now is a perfect time to ensure that your team members feel valued and empowered. This, in turn, will help them stay engaged and motivated.

[ Read also: Digital transformation: 4 ways to plan for the post-pandemic normal. ]

Cathy Bush, Ph.D., has spent decades investing in the development of leaders as an organizational psychologist, consultant, professor, coach, and author.