Workplace Apathy

One of the hardest challenges as a leader is recognizing and addressing team apathy. There is almost nothing worse for productivity than people who no longer caring about their peers, the organization or the quality of their work. Overt apathy is easy to spot, but at work, most prefer to avoid direct confrontation and as a result those feeling apathetic will go through the motions with a “everything’s fine” smile plastered to their face.

I consider myself to be very lucky, I’ve only had a few cases (that I know of) where a team member developed workplace apathy. In one case, the person had been a rising star – full of energy and enthusiasm. But over time they became more withdrawn and eventually fell silent during meetings. This person also began to show up late and their work was barely the minimum we needed.

Directly Confronting Apathy Doesn’t Always Work

I asked this person to come to my office to discuss the situation and it did not go as planned. I learned an important leadership lesson that day – You can’t simply ask someone to tell you what’s wrong when they view YOU as part of the problem.

Below is a synopsis of how the conversation went (names changed):

Me: “Pat, I’ve noticed lately that you haven’t been your usual enthusiastic self.”

Pat: “Really? I’ve felt the same as I always have.”

“Are you sure everything is okay? You used to have so many ideas and your work was top-notch, but now you’re mostly silent at the office and your work is just the minimum.”

“I’m fine. I’m just a little tired that’s all.”

“Everything okay at home? Do you need a few days off? That’s not a problem if you need the time, just take it.”

“It’s fine.”

“Okay. Remember if you ever need to talk, my door is always open and you can also sit down with Mary over in HR as well.”

“Everything’s fine.”

Frankly I was kind of shocked at the lackluster response from Pat. I had used a similar approach with other team members and they had opened up about the issues they were facing. Pat, however, completely shut down. What I had failed to recognize was that I might be the cause of the problem. Instead I assumed that Pat was the source of the issue. That was one of my many mistakes.

A few months before, I had asked a company veteran to lead a new (and exciting) client project. I felt that person had the customer service chops to deliver the best outcome. Pat, however, really wanted the assignment and believed he deserved it, having recently delivered stellar results on an unrelated internal project.

To make matters worse, the project ended up being a disaster and it required “all hands on deck” to salvage the situation. For Pat, this failure proved that I had made the wrong choice. As well, my inaction to reprimand the failed project leader reinforced to Pat that the team culture was such that it tolerated “bad results”. Because of this, Pat stopped caring about work and faded into the background.

Unfortunately, Pat resigned from the company soon after my attempt at dialog.

I only discovered Pat’s perspective from someone else at the company who he had confided in. I don’t blame Pat for leaving and reflecting back on the situation, now I can see how my direct approach was not the best option – especially since Pat viewed me as the cause of the problems.

Pat’s departure was a wakeup call for me and I invested a lot of time getting to know the members of my team better. I also began communicating more openly and was more transparent about why certain decisions were being made – not to justify my actions but so that the team could understand what traits/skills/experience were valued.

Causes of Workplace Apathy

According to Kristi Hedges, there are eight common causes of workplace apathy:

  1. Micromanagement
  2. Lack of progress
  3. Job insecurity
  4. No confidence in leadership
  5. Lack of recourse for poor performance
  6. Poor communication
  7. Unpleasant co-workers
  8. Boredom

In the case of my team member, Pat, I had failed on dimensions 2, 4, 5 and 6.

Same Causes of Apathy in Healthcare

I believe that these are the same dimensions that people working in healthcare experience. Clinicians toil everyday to make the lives of patients better which in many cases they do, but at times it must be hard not to feel like it is a drop in the bucket. Drug prices are increasing, health insurance coverage is shrinking and the complexity of providing care increases every year. It would not surprise me if many feel a complete lack of progress.

Poor communication is another common complaint in healthcare. This is perhaps due to the fact that everyone is so busy in healthcare and there has not traditionally been a lot of open dialog in healthcare’s hierarchical management structures of the past.

Most vexing for people is the tolerance healthcare organizations have for bad behavior. In many organizations, doctors, nurses and administrators that treat people like dirt, are not reprimanded for their actions. This is extremely frustrating for team members and sends a signal that management doesn’t care enough about its employees to do something about the situation, which of course leads to apathy, then burnout and eventually resignation.

But how can we combat this in healthcare? Is there something we can do as individuals when we see someone who is showing signs of apathy at work?

Join me Tuesday October 29th at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) as we discuss workplace apathy in healthcare. Here are the questions that we will cover:

  • T1 Have you ever worked in an organization or with a person that was apathetic? What did you do in that situation?
  • T2 Do you feel that there is apathy in healthcare? If not, why not. If so, where and how does it manifest?
  • T3 Is apathy a precursor to burnout? Or can apathy be a sign/symptom of something else?
  • T4 What can healthcare leaders do to combat apathy in the workplace? Relative to other healthcare challenges, is it a priority?


Hedges, Kristi. “8 Common Causes of Workplace Demotivation”, Forbes, 20 January 2014,, accessed 26 October 2019

“Apathy Will Get You Nowhere”, HealthLeaders, 4 September 2008,, accessed 26 October 2019

Douglas, Kathy. “When Caring Stops, Staffing Doesn’t Really Matter”, Nursing Economics, December 2010,, accessed 26 October 2019

Burton, Joan. “WHO Healthy Workplace Framework and Model”, World Health Organization, February 2010,, accessed 26 October 2019

Oshiro, Bryan. “The Best Way Hospitals Can Engage Physicians, Nurses, and Staff”, HealthCatalyst, 21 April 2015,, accessed 26 October 2019

Hays, Steven M. “The High Cost of Apathy: Why Leadership Coaching is Needed in Health Care”, Journal of Strategic Leadership, 2008,, accessed 26 October 2019

Lis, Gabrielle. ‘6 Simple Apathy Busters”, Return to Work Matters,, accessed 26 October 2019

“Burnout Response”, Workplace Strategies for Mental Health via Canada Life,, accessed 26 October 2019

Image Credit

Photo by Brandon Holmes on Unsplash

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