Decoding Employee Engagement Decline: Navigating Complex Trends and Strategies for Revitalization

After experiencing an upward trend in recent years, employee engagement in the United States has faced its first annual decline in a decade, dropping from 36% of employees in 2020 to 34% in 2021. This downward trajectory continued into 2022, with the engagement rate further diminishing to 32% among both full- and part-time workers in various organizations.

Additionally, the number of actively disengaged employees has risen to 18%, marking an increase of two percentage points from the previous year and four points from 2020.

This shift has led to a change in the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged workers, which now stands at 1.8-to-1. This shift represents a decline from the 2.1-to-1 ratio in 2021 and the 2.6-to-1 ratio in 2020. This current ratio is the lowest recorded since 2013, nearly a decade prior, with the highest ratio of 2.7-to-1 observed in 2019.

Factors Behind The Decline in Employee Engagement

Geoff Whiting, Content Strategy Manager at Hubstaff, sheds light on the potential factors contributing to the decline in employee engagement over the past years. Whiting emphasizes the significance of comprehending the wider macroeconomic context that the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped, influencing people's satisfaction with various aspects of life. He elaborates on how work is just one of many areas where individuals find themselves less content, leading to reduced engagement.

Whiting says, “Life changed dramatically, and people are now asking very directly, ‘What value do I get out of this?' Work is definitely on that list for many.” 

Delving into employee engagement within the pandemic and remote work framework, Whiting highlights two significant areas of impact. First, he points out that remote work's initial adoption by numerous companies aimed to ensure business continuity during uncertain times. However, he stresses the potential peril of this approach, where the subsequent phase sees companies retracting this perceived benefit with return-to-office (RTO) mandates.

He states, “Companies that promoted remote work as a core benefit to protect employees are now taking that away with RTO mandates. Employers have slowly been making greater and greater requests for their ‘return to normal,' often before employees felt safe returning to work in a traditional sense. Many also changed their lives and even homes when employers promised permanent remote work. Changes and taking back promises erode trust; every ounce of trust lost translates to decreased engagement.”

Prioritizing Non-Work Health Factors

Furthermore, Whiting notes the relevance of considering non-work-related health factors. He notes that mental health concerns such as depression have surged to historic levels. Statistics from Gallup reveal that 29% of U.S. adults have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, while approximately 18% are presently undergoing treatment for the condition.

Whiting draws attention to the parallel rise in loneliness, which the pandemic has exacerbated.

The implications of these trends are manifesting in the workplace, especially among younger Gen Z workers.

Their emphasis on healthcare resources, psychological well-being, and similar concerns underscores the growing importance of creating an environment of safety and support. He concludes that fostering such an environment would yield positive outcomes, including increased engagement, if employees consistently experience protection and care in their workplace environment.

The Nexus of Engagement

The intricate interplay between employee well-being, work-life balance, and career advancement significantly shapes the overall engagement levels within an organization. According to Whiting, a common thread binding these factors is the crucial role of trust and communication.

Many studies have shown that one of the most effective strategies for managers to foster trust and sustain active engagement is by engaging in individualized 15- to 30-minute conversations with each team member weekly. This modest step towards open communication sets the foundation for cultivating a positive atmosphere of engagement.

“What's even better, Whiting says, “is that the topics discussed in these meetings matter. The most important ones cover how the employee is doing—their well-being and workload, their life-work balance, and how they can achieve career goals at their current job. The role of companies and managers is to create a space to ask and listen and then respond in ways that get work done and accomplish company goals.”

Prioritizing Conversations for Enhanced Engagement

Whiting underscores the role of companies and managers in facilitating an environment that encourages inquiry, attentive listening, and proactive responses that align with task completion and organizational objectives.

He strongly advocates for organizations to wholeheartedly embrace this approach by addressing concerns and opportunities with every member of their teams. Citing an HBR study review conducted this spring, Whiting highlights an interesting trend.

Most employees, even those in the lowest-wage roles, desire to remain with their current company in the short term while also nurturing aspirations for long-term growth within the same organization. Notably, those often perceived as disengaged and at high risk of turnover share this desire to remain, provided they are afforded personal and professional development opportunities. “They just need the opportunity to grow. Give it to them, and you have a pretty straightforward recipe for improving well-being and engagement,” Whiting says.

Engagement Metrics in Light of Changing Ratios

As the ratio of engaged to disengaged employees undergoes a significant shift, organizations are compelled to reevaluate their approach to measuring and interpreting employee engagement success. According to Whiting, the divergence in definitions and measurements of engagement metrics across companies and industries poses a significant challenge. He emphasizes that productivity, a prominent metric, varies substantially within sectors and even within an organization.

A crucial aspect, Whiting asserts, is understanding that data should be interpreted within a comprehensive context rather than being blindly adopted to drive decisions.

Illustrating this concept, Whiting highlights Hubstaff's Insights tool, which monitors productivity and time metrics. He exemplifies how allocating time for core work and computer interaction differs for distinct professionals.

While sales and marketing professionals devote around 40% to 60% of their day to core tasks and computer interactions, those in software development and related roles commit approximately 60% to 80% of their time to core work and nearly 55% to computer interactions. Whiting stresses the significance of benchmarking professionals against their peers to ensure equitable assessment, mitigating potential frustration caused by disparate metrics.

However, Whiting admits that no solitary, all-encompassing metric independently depicts organizational health or employee engagement. The true value of metrics lies in the context they are embedded in. He posits that individual circumstances greatly impact interpretations, be it someone working 45 hours per week while overwhelmed or another managing 20 hours under similar conditions.

Whiting contends that a comprehensive grasp of team members, facilitated through robust analytics and effective communication, is what imbues metrics with value, enabling organizations to extract meaningful insights.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Author: Amaka Chukwuma

Title: Writer

Expertise: Lifestyle and Finance


Amaka Chukwuma is a finance and lifestyle writer with a real knack for the craft. She's been at it for over four years, making her mark on places like FinanceBuzz and The Buttonwood Tree, not to mention some cool collaborations with various brands. Her work with Wealth of Geeks has been widely appreciated, with syndication across multiple platforms and publications. Amaka's got a BA in Linguistics. When she's taking a break from her writing adventures, you'll probably find her digging into some delicious pies or exploring the food scene. Want to see what she's up to or get a taste of her work? Hit her up on LinkedIn and Twitter.