Turning around disengaged workers

SEASONED workers who quit and leave are common to all organisations. But not as inevitable are the vast swathes of employees who quit and stay. This is one way of describing the Singaporeans who say they do not like their jobs and are disconnected from their colleagues. While they have been rated among the least satisfied employees in the Asia-Pacific region, eight in 10 workers in India think they have the perfect job, according to recruitment firm Randstad. So wide is the gulf that Singaporeans would be incredulous to hear that one in five Indians would work for free because he loves his job so much, as another survey found.

Work disengagement, which has been flagged regularly in the past, should not be taken lightly. Billions of dollars of lost productivity are racked up, businesses lose their edge, and organisational inertia can lead to operational failures.

Something larger lurks as well. Research firm Gallup had earlier found that actively disengaged employees were also fairly pessimistic about Singapore's economic prospects. As the firm's Asia-Pacific managing partner said, such people "always see doom and gloom, whether it relates to their work, their personal lives, or their countries". In contrast, engaged workers are more optimistic about an outcome sought and, "more importantly, are more willing to work to make it happen".

So there's merit in probing why some work with passion and help drive innovation, while others simply go through the motions, and yet others act out their frustrations at work. Studies show that much can turn on how workers' deep-seated needs are addressed - a sense of achievement, growth opportunities, genuine recognition, and work that is interesting and meaningful. A younger generation of workers also craves better work-life balance (for example, via flexible hours).

Managers who take a "let them eat cake" attitude towards workers impede change. Mollycoddling prescriptions are also not recommended as workers must be deeply aware of market realities, like competition from foreign workforces capable of delivering high-level performance and break-away ideas. Singaporeans will be no match for them if all settle for "incrementalisms such as cost-reduction or productivity improvements per se", as a business chief noted. The hard part is in fully appreciating that established management practices alone are insufficient to achieve change. Engagement is essentially about taking people to a higher emotional plane. If this does not compute, it would underscore how people have become distanced from one another in a society that prides itself on technological advancement, like Singapore and Japan. Both score poorly in worker engagement.