A Sudden Drop in Motivation: Why?

Thirty percent of employees feel less engaged at work than they did six months ago. How firms can turn that around—and need to.

Gone are the speculative, headline-grabbing bonuses that rewarded high performers who changed jobs or stayed on. Retirement plans that were robust have now sunk dramatically. And one CEO after another is warning staffers about a looming recession.

The reasons are many, but worker motivation—that critical, hard-to-grasp component of a company’s success, is nosediving. According to a new survey from the Conference Board, a nonprofit business think tank, 30% of employees say their level of engagement—the commitment and connection that they feel to their work—is lower than six months ago. And 18% said their level of effort had declined over the last six months. Women, millennials, and individual contributors report lower engagement than men, older generations, and executives.

Experts say they can’t pinpoint any one event that caused the shift, but cite an accumulation of mounting stresses—some within company control, most not. Many firms, for instance, continue to shift work-from-home policies, leaving workers confused about expectations. Meanwhile, other workers fret over inflation, the state of world affairs, and downbeat financial forecasts.

“People are genuinely tired, and it’s showing,” says Kristi Drew, Korn Ferry senior client partner and global account leader in the firm’s Financial Services practice.

The engagement drop among workers also may be a reaction to their own changing priorities, says Anu Gupta, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. The pandemic continues to make people reconsider what they want out of their careers and personal lives. If their current job isn’t helping them meet those priorities, they become less engaged.

A modern corporation thrives when it employs motivated workers who are eager to make a big impact for themselves and their organization. Experts say any lack of motivation among a company’s workers, particularly younger ones, can be a troubling sign. Less-engaged workers are more prone to quit and often less productive than their more motivated counterparts.

The Conference Board said that an individual employee’s work environment—whether on-site, remote, or hybrid—had no impact on how engaged that employee said they were. However, some experts believe that the difficulty in forging connections may be taking a toll. There’s very little “stickiness” at work, says Tanya van Biesen, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and managing partner for the firm’s Board and CEO Services practice in Canada. Employees, particularly new recruits who joined their organization during a period when many of their coworkers may rarely be in the office, have found it particularly difficult to embrace a company’s culture or even develop friends at work. “You end up having no connections to anyone or anything,” van Biesen says.

That might be one of the reasons people continue to walk away from their jobs in near-record numbers, despite the slowing economy. In August, there were nearly 4.2 million quits nationwide, not too far away from the record high of 4.5 million last November. Before April 2021, there had never been more than 4 million quits in a single month.

Employee engagement may never get as high as some leaders would like. On average, only about one-third of workers ever consider themselves “highly engaged” at work. It’s why many experts say the onus is on leaders to offer workers meaningful assignments and the opportunity to develop their skills and careers. Managers also need to set clear goals and expectations for their direct reports, help them meet those goals, and take action when they don’t.