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Engagement - Learn to Love Your Job | Part 1: Overcoming Disengagement

By SRAI News posted 04-13-2023 09:14 AM


Engagement - Learn to Love Your Job | Part 1: Overcoming Disengagement

For the next three months the Spotlight examines engagement at work amid the new normal of remote- ready, hybrid and on-site environments. Engagement – active involvement and commitment – comes with the risk of disengagement in the form of diminished enthusiasm, detachment, and isolation. How can workplace culture reconcile these phenomena to achieve more satisfaction and fulfillment for research administrators? The series begins with a look at the consequences of disengagement fostered from a lack of clear direction and support.

While engaged, well-adjusted employees model the standard employers strive for among their workforces, less is known and discussed about the opposite, disengagement. According to a Gallup survey, the average worker spends 81,396 hours on the job during a lifetime. That statistic is staggering, even more so when the survey revealed that 60% of workers are detached from their jobs and 19% reported being miserable. More than half the respondents stated they were stressed as recently as the day before they participated in the exercise. These are troubling indicators about where we spend the majority of our waking hours. Gallup dug deeper and asked respondents why they were experiencing burnout. Unfair treatment at work led, followed by handling an unmanageable workload, unclear communication from managers, lack of manager support, and unreasonable time pressure. Sound familiar?

Disengagement – the action or process of withdrawing from involvement in a particular activity, situation, or group is the single greatest factor in reduction of an enterprise’s productivity, as well as a root cause of depression, withdrawal, mental health issues, and physical health ailments. From an employer perspective, this separation feeds into loss of productivity, greater turnover, and requiring others to work harder. Indeed, we all at times experience pressure from our positions, sometimes even overwhelming stress from the demands of our field. How do we combat these feelings before emotional detachment completely takes over? 

Research administrators often need to be nimble, pivot with great frequency, and juggle a high-volume workload with tight deadlines. Who has not felt pressure during a competitive R01 cycle, when it is 4:30 p.m. with five more proposals to submit in the next 30 minutes and non-responsive investigators? While we may feel detached at times, that is a natural reaction to stress. It is the fight or flight response. The danger comes when we allow stress to distract our focus from productivity to other non-constructive behaviors (procrastination, daydreaming, web-searching, online shopping, etc.). Sustained feelings of stress do lead to disengagement, with the potential risk of burnout. While feelings of disengagement may wax and wane depending on the situation, burnout is a more permanent state, leading to physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion accompanied with reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.

The foundations of disengagement are very human. Among them are concerns of overwork, unappreciation, loneliness and isolation, lack of growth, and not being heard by management. To not appear weak, we rarely speak with our supervisors about these ordinary feelings, leading to difficult situations becoming worse. Instead of looking to colleagues for support, disengagement provokes lack of camaraderie, recognition, growth, and purpose. This latter factor is most important. Mitigating strategies can help repair and reset these harmful feelings. First, recognize what is occurring. Why are you not sleeping well? Why are you more tired than usual? Where is the joie de vivre you once had when commuting to work? Second, what about your co-workers? Are they experiencing the same thing? Do they feel disengaged from their work, supervisors, and/or commitment? Is the job’s purpose just to generate a paycheck and benefits? Third, employees today need significant, meaningful reasons in order to remain engaged on a long-term basis. Personal purpose, wellness, and fulfillment are essential to surmount emotional detachment from work.

Attention to fulfillment and purpose is crucial to realizing, admitting, and overcoming disengagement. This applies to the other side of the desk as well. Supervisors and managers need to acknowledge that not every employee can remain engaged 24/7 indefinitely. Over time, it is only natural to want periods of taking one’s foot off the gas pedal for a while. Constant deadlines, faculty behaving like hungry wolverines, and no end in sight to the ever-increasing workload are predictable stressors. Today, too much focus is on the work product and not enough on the worker. A manager’s role includes the vital ability to watch out for signs of disengagement and burnout and to alleviate these before they become larger concerns.

Managers should lead into engagement by noting why it is important and specifically find ways to keep each staff member actively involved. They can effectively counteract detachment through crafting a professional development plan for each employee and frequently reward small wins. This is best achieved by recognizing the employee, shifting workload (not always less but sometimes different assignments), and providing means of connection. These techniques are most effective when practiced within daily or weekly check-in meetings, not at the annual evaluation review. 

Managerial awareness of disengagement is every bit as important as recognition of an employee’s strengths and successes. If a piece of equipment starts slowing down, one would service it or replace parts for optimal function. The same holds true with employees. Managers do not want employees to break down and ultimately require replacement i.e., disengagement and burnout. Regular, sustained support is best. With employees, engagement advocacy requires serving as coach, cheerleader, and often psychologist and motivator. Disengagement is a normal part of a career cycle and often can be healthy, offering a chance to course correct. It is like that pesky service repair light that suddenly appears. Ignoring it can lead to worse outcomes. Paying attention to that warning light can achieve healthier longer-term fulfillment and renewed purpose.

Next month in the Spotlight: What is engagement, and how to become and remain engaged over the spectrum of a research administration career.

Authored by Sabrina Cerezo, Assistant Director for Grants, Stonybrook Research
Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer, Departments of Neurobiology and Computational Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California Los Angeles

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