"He’s phoning it in."

"She already has one foot out the door."

"In a suit? Must be interviewing!"

We’ve all heard these sorts of comments about employees who are visibly disengaged. If things have gotten so bad that the whole office can see a co-worker is unhappy, is there any way for the boss to turn the situation around?

Job disillusionment has many causes, so no one solution will work for every situation, but perhaps the root cause is different from the usual issues such as interpersonal conflict, burnout, or frustration over compensation or advancement. Maybe the issue is more fundamental: The employee has simply lost the sense that his or her work matters, that it ends up helping his or her fellow human beings.

Giving Back

A recent Huffington Post blog post by Crystal Chen describing her personal journey from mentally writing her resignation letter to top employee, serves as a great reminder to bosses that sometimes the fix for disengagement will make you feel good and doesn’t cost a dime. "When I started working, I stopped volunteering. I didn't have the time," Chen writes. "I started to feel really depleted… I told [my manager] Jooe I'm leaving for a job where I work 9 - 5 and do things outside of work."

So how did Chen’s bosses turn around what seems a dire case of employee dissatisfaction? "Charlie, our founder and CEO, told me Summer Search was moving into Next Jump's Manhattan offices. Summer Search is a nonprofit that mentors low-income youth, helping them develop skills and character traits they need to get into and succeed in college and in life," she reports. "Charlie asked if I'd like to captain the initiative… Now, in addition to my marketing position, I'm a career coach for a Summer Search student at the office. Giving back is part of my job."

The effects of having the opportunity to make a difference were profound for Chen. “People often ask our CEO what benefits do you see from all your giving back initiatives?... For me, I went from quitting to the most engaged I have been at work and leave every day a happier more fulfilled person,” Chen says.

Why You Should Help Your Employees Help Others

Chen’s story may just be one piece of anecdotal evidence about the power of ensuring employees feel as if they’re giving back, but there are studies to support the idea that you might benefit from helping your employees help others. Author Dan Ariely, for instance, has written about research showing that offering employees $20 vouchers to give to their colleagues "provided numerous positive outcomes."

Other research from Wharton’s Adam Grant reveals bringing in "internal customers" to explicitly talk to their co-workers about how their work makes a positive impact radically improves motivation. All of which suggests that if morale is flagging at your company, it might be worth at least thinking about whether you might best help your business by offering more opportunities for your team to directly help others.

Do you provide your employees any opportunities to give back?

Published on: Jan 31, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.