Employee disengagement is rampant in the workplace. We’ve all experienced it as customers encountering unhelpful retail clerks and as colleagues dealing with apathetic teammates. But what happens when you yourself feel dead at work?

We’re glad you asked because this issue of Howe’s Now Monthly summarizes a Harvard Business Review article that describes what you as an individual can do to sustain your motivation or recover it, even in the most stultifying of jobs.


If you’re unengaged at work, you’re not alone.

In virtually everyone’s career, there comes a time when motivation and interest vanish. The usual tasks feel tedious. It’s hard to muster the energy for new projects. Though we go through the motions of being good employees or managers, we’re not really “there.” We become ghosts or zombies: the working dead.

Boston University’s William Kahn first diagnosed this problem as disengagement in the 1990s, and three decades later it’s still rampant. According to the most recent Gallup polling, only 23% of people around the world are engaged at work. (While that’s a record high, it’s a pretty dismal one.) A full 59% are not engaged—that is, they “put in the minimum effort required” and are “psychologically disconnected from their employer”—while 18% are highly disengaged and deliberately acting against their organizations’ interests.

After synthesizing research on workplace motivation and experimenting with various strategies, we’ve developed a four-step process for reenergizing yourself. It isn’t about creating a relentlessly upbeat “rainbows and lollipops” view of work. Our process is meant to interrupt the cycle of numbness and paralysis and restore your sense of agency so that you’re able to effectively address professional and personal challenges.


To overcome disengagement, start by detaching (surprisingly).

Though this may sound like a counterintuitive first step for overcoming disengagement, it’s important to take time to step back and objectively analyze your situation and feelings. When people are unhappy—at work or in general—they interpret events and information negatively. Bad things appear worse than they are, as if they’ll last forever. And they seem to always be happening to you no matter what you do.

You need distance and perspective to make wise choices; otherwise, you’re merely reacting, in a fight-or-flight kind of way. One of the biggest career mistakes people make, for example, is “ running from and not to”—taking a new job purely to escape the old one.


Next, be compassionate and kind to yourself.

When you’re feeling unmotivated at work, you might beat yourself up for your lack of interest and ambition. But compassion toward yourself is crucial for re-engagement. It’s also important to resist the impulse to withdraw from your manager and colleagues. We all have psychological needs—for social interaction, intellectual satisfaction, positive regard from others, and feelings of accomplishment. And one of the most effective ways to meet those needs is to help others meet theirs.


Then take action.

Research shows that disengaged employees act out: They seek escape through drinking or drugs; spend excessive amounts of time surfing the internet or taking care of personal business at work; and often behave unprofessionally. (Randstad USA found that 40% of disengaged workers played pranks on coworkers.) But that rebellious energy can be channeled in more productive ways, both small and big.

Tackle the little stuff. Research shows that when you make progress on even minor, mundane tasks, your mood improves—as do the chances that you’ll be able to accomplish bigger jobs.

Invest in outside activites. Hobbies, volunteer jobs, and “side hustles” can give you a sense of empowerment and reconnection that carries over to your work. If your job is failing to provide meaning and satisfaction, finding those things elsewhere can make it feel more tolerable.


Finally, reframe your thinking.

You can reframe your thinking about work in two ways. First, by asking yourself who you are in your job, and second, by considering what role your job plays in your life.

Look at the big picture. Concentrate on the higher-order purpose of your work. This is the classic “one man is laying bricks, the other is building a cathedral” mindset shift, and it really does work. Multiple studies have shown that people can perform unpleasant or boring tasks better and longer when they understand how those tasks are connected to a larger goal.

Consider how others benefit from your work. This is one of the most effective ways to reframe your job. You may help others inherently by doing your work or perhaps by being your family’s breadwinner, for example. A vast body of research has shown that this focus can help motivate people through disagreeable tasks.

Even if your job is not what you want it to be, the steps we’ve described here can help you reengage at work. All these things—giving yourself distance, acting empathetically, channeling your energy productively, and reframing your thoughts about work—will improve your mental health, make you better at your job, and increase the odds that something good will happen in your professional future.

Advice for the Unmotivated