Spotting an unengaged employee: We asked 3 experts to describe red flags

Employee engagement is critical to an organization's growth and survival. Hospitals and health systems realize that a disengaged workforce can negatively impact an organization's productivity, efficiency and quality of care.

Here are three perspectives from healthcare industry experts on how to spot a restless or unhappy employee.

Note: Responses have been edited for clarity, style and length.

Barbara A. Reilly, PhD
Senior Vice President of Employee, Nurse, and Physician Engagement at Press Ganey

"When assessing relative engagement, I like to use the metaphor, 'How full is your tank?' We all have a relative tank of engagement, and there are experiences that fill it and situations that deplete this engagement reservoir. When employees are walking around with an empty tank, it's easy to see.

For many people, it's exhibited by withdrawing from conversations or meetings or being unusually silent. This can show as lack of energy or enthusiasm for the work itself. Individuals might start postponing or canceling meetings or figuring out ways to expend the least amount of energy to get by. There is a decreased level of helpfulness or willingness to go above and beyond that endures over time.

Leaders should be listening as well. People who are disengaged tend to hold on to the same problems or situations. Does an employee bring up a concern, over and over, even when the problem has been addressed? Some disengaged employees spend an incredible amount of time talking in the form of complaining, blaming, or 'sharing their story' vs. completing work. I like to call this the talking vs. doing ratio. Leaders should tune into what this ratio looks like.

A disengaged employee is suffering and it takes a skilled leader to spot it, understand it, and address it."

Cord Himelstein
Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Michael C. Fina Recognition

"There are three pretty reliable red flags you can look for. The first is an 'I don't care' type of attitude, and generally showing less interest and care for their work. You might also see an uptick in their tardiness, or they're absent, or call in sick more often. Second is just seeing the quality of their work decline, whether it's failing to meet deadlines or meeting deadlines with noticeably sub-par work. The third kind of goes back to the attitude, and that is mood swings. If they are normally this happy employee to you, and then suddenly cop a negative attitude or behave out of character, it might be about a personal issue in their life, but it also may be about issues at work making them dissatisfied. I think that these three things are really the classic signs of disengagement, and highlight the importance of communication in the workplace and developing a healthy, supportive rapport with your staff to stay ahead of any roadblocks to happiness."

Loretta Samaniego, MD
Vice President of Physician Practice Development at TeamHealth

"It's important to watch for red flags not only for unengaged employees, but also for burned out employees. Burned out employees are really the ones at the opposite end of the spectrum from highly engaged employees, and they're at a very high risk for a lot of negative behaviors behaviors — both external and internal. We at healthcare organizations have an obligation to recognize the red flags and help avoid a crisis situation.

Some of the signs you might look for are someone who is usually punctual or early to work starting to arrive late, or a surgeon who misses start times. An increase in clinical errors is an ominous sign, obviously, and one we would want to catch way before it happens. An increase in unprofessional conduct with peers, and patient and staff complaints are bad signs. And a general look of depression — like they're not getting sleep, they're disheveled and grouchy on a continuous basis — is a red flag, too.

We all get tired, stressed out and have bad days, but what's the difference from just being stressed out and being burned out? I think one of the big ways to tell is when you get back from vacation you should be refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to go. If you come back from vacation — a significant vacation — and you're not refreshed, you're not rejuvenated, then that's a really big cue for burnout as well."



More articles on workforce and labor management:

Workers call for better staffing at San Francisco General
NJ nurses gather to protest OMNIA
Tri-City Medical Center worker claims she was fired over executive salary cap petition

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