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Commentary: Zombie employees and the cost of poor engagement at work

A lack of motivation isn’t just a personal problem. It can impact company revenues, say two organisation development experts from PACE OD Consulting.

Commentary: Zombie employees and the cost of poor engagement at work

Zombie employees are now present in over half of Singapore’s businesses and can continue to be a real cost for our country. (Photo: Pixabay/caio_triana)

SINGAPORE: Chances are as you start your day with a cup of coffee in the office pantry, you’ll hear a low-pitched groan coming from behind you.

Without missing a beat, you’re likely to respond quite calmly: “Hi Michael, how’s it going?”

Most recognise the distinctive call of the zombie employee – people who are physically present at the office, but mentally absent or “checked out” as they go about work.

Aon Hewitt’s 2016 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Study found that Singapore employees are the least engaged — or psychologically invested in their organisations — among major Asian markets.

Mercer’s recently published Singapore Employee Engagement Index shows Singapore to be in a third consecutive year of decline in employee engagement.

All these put together suggests that Singapore-based companies have not been doing enough to curb poor employee engagement, or that efforts have not been hitting the right spots.

But the larger looming question is, why are Singapore residents so unmotivated? And more importantly, what can be done about it?


While we may dismiss employee engagement as a personal emotional issue — concerning whether we feel happy and enthusiastic about our work or not — research has shown that it has a measurable impact on business revenue.

Low engagement leads to higher absenteeism and turnover, lower customer satisfaction and ultimately, poor financial performance.

On the contrary, improving employee engagement can result in as much as a 57 per cent decrease in absenteeism and a 12 per cent increase in customer satisfaction, according to research by the Madison Performance Group.

Aon Hewitt has additionally shown that a 5 percentage point increase in employee engagement is linked to a 3 percentage point increase in revenue growth in the subsequent year.

But unlike a self-healing wound, employee engagement will not get better if left on its own. When unaddressed, disengagement spirals into demotivation, which manifests itself in more detrimental ways than employees sleepwalking through their workdays.

Workers in Singapore's CBD. (File photo: Sutrisno Foo) People cross a street in Singapore's central business district. (Photo: Sutrisno Foo)

Motivation is the driving force behind any kind of action or lack of action, explains Helle Bundgaard, Danish ex-IT executive who now coaches senior executives using neuropsychology to identify their motivation factors. Everything that a demotivated employee does will not have the impact it should, compared to someone who is motivated.

In economics, an initial change in aggregate demand can have a much greater final impact on equilibrium national income. This occurs because one’s spending is another’s income, which can affect further rounds of spending. Eventually, this change can lead to a multiplier effect on output and employment.

In a similar way, a negative multiplier kicks in when employees are demotivated. When employees are demotivated, they contribute the bare minimum to important projects and initiatives, and sometimes affect those around them. Organisations as a whole cannot produce the outcomes needed to stay competitive.

Imagine an economy full of such companies staffed by zombies - these sluggish organisations wear down a country’s growth, affecting Singapore’s attractiveness and competitiveness as a hub for foreign investments.


Initiatives to engage employees by some of Singapore’s organisations with the best track record in this area, including Yahoo Singapore, the National Environmental Agency and the National Kidney Foundation, have often focused on improving the working environment and culture, making it more family-oriented, and integrating cross-department collaboration.

Many have rolled out dialogue sessions for staff to air their concerns, and programmes to improve their well-being such as stress-management talks, health days, or fitness weeks.

These initiatives, however, tend to focus on the extrinsic factors of engagement, which only come up to 55 per cent of what keeps an employee engaged, as measured by the Boston Research Group.

The remaining 45 per cent comes intrinsically from having our needs met, identifying our role’s purpose, making full use of our individual talents, and being able to identify what to pursue and avoid.

Addressing poor employee engagement and demotivation has to be tackled at an individual level in order for it to be effective. In this – organisations need to address issues flexibly and not try to find a solution that can be replicated for every employee.

Just as one man’s meat is another man’s poison, what might be extremely energy enhancing to one person, can be absolutely energy draining to another.

For example, an employee with a talent for creativity, who enjoys looking at things differently and exploring new possibilities, may get a boost in energy from working under more flexible guidelines and timelines. However, if this person is working on a project that demands micro-management and attention to detail, shaping the project progress over time can be highly frustrating, draining and eventually demotivating.

Team dynamics can also impact personal motivation. (Photo: Pixabay)

Our motivation is therefore personal. It involves an interplay of factors unique to each of us, including our talents and needs. Our motivation is also situational and dependent on the environment in which we live and operate in – suggesting that we need a fundamentally different approach to human resource management, one that is highly customised.

The good news is, addressing disengagement and demotivation does not have to be a long and arduous process – and can be addressed by looking at common denominators of what affects our motivation.

Based on her research on the brain’s reaction and response patterns, Helle explains that our motivation breaks apart starting with the things that drain our energy. Be it having to handle a series of change after change on a project, manage a team that is always in conflict with one another, or working late to fulfil a tight timeline, these are “energy drainers” that distract us from our current goals, clutter our minds, and waste resources.

Our motivation is further hindered when our needs are not met, invoking stress responses that hijack the brain. When this occurs, it is difficult for us to use our talents effectively and achieve our purpose at work.

The sum of our intrinsic motivation is thus made up of our energy, needs, talents and purpose, each of which requires us to take action to manage as individuals.

But before HR can tell employees that their motivation is their own responsibility, organisations must bear in mind that zombie employees will not have the muscle to work on their own motivation. Corporate employee engagement initiatives must take the first step in creating the opportunities and environment for their employees to identify and leverage their intrinsic motivation factors.

Zombie employees are now present in over half of Singapore’s businesses and can continue to be a real cost for our country.

However, the antidote to disengagement and demotivation may actually be much cheaper and within reach than we have imagined, and starts with organisations having the right focus on the intrinsic, individual, and situational aspects of motivating their employees.

Dr Peter Cheng and Dr Lily Cheng are the founders of PACE OD Consulting, an organisation development firm.

Source: CNA/sl


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