The Challenge of Apathy

June 13, 2022 9:00 am Published by

Recently, I was speaking to a group of organizational leaders about workplace culture, and I asked them about some of the more challenging issues they are seeing. One leader responded: “apathy” — to which numerous others nodded in affirmation. They went on to elaborate:

“Younger leaders are more passive”

“They seem willing to live with the status quo,” and

“They lack passion — they don’t seem to have any ‘fire in their belly.’”

The senior leaders I was training were asking: “What do I do?” “How can I motivate a developing leader who doesn’t seem interested?” Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve heard this concern. So, let’s explore this issue of apathy.

Understanding Apathy

Apathy is essentially a lack of interest or concern, characterized by indifference and an “I don’t care” attitude. When a person is apathetic, they lack passion for virtually everything; there’s a loss of motivation accompanied by a lack of emotion (either positive or negative). Other symptoms include a general passivity, a lack of initiative, low emotional energy and an overarching social disengagement.

These individuals approach life in a disinterested, passive manner. They are clearly not self-initiating and those who supervise them feel like they are “pushing a rope.”

Where Apathy Comes From

Apathy and indifference can be the result from many different sources.

  • Hopelessness — belief that you’ll never reach your goals
  • Powerlessness – a sense that there’s nothing they can do to change the situation
  • Fatalism – “it’s all going to hell in a hand basket” so why do anything?
  • Boredom – many employees are in a position which under-utilizes their skills and they are “bored to death”
  • Meaninglessness — when employees don’t see the connection between what they do and the end product or service the organization provides.
  • Learned helplessness — through being micromanaged and having their actions undercut by others
  • Not feeling valued – when employees don’t feel appreciated by their colleagues, their motivation declines significantly

Attacking Apathy

The best place to begin is to have an individual discussion with the team member that seems to “not care” and has low energy. Start by sharing your observations: “Steve, I’ve noticed that you often don’t seem very excited about the work you are doing.” Follow by checking in with them (versus stating your observation as a fact): “Is that a fair statement?”

If they confirm your observation(s) are correct, then share your concerns about them as a person: “I’m concerned for you – I don’t want you to drag yourself through the day or hate what you are doing. Can you help me understand your thoughts and perspective?” This step is important because other factors outside of work can be creating challenges for them: not feeling well physically, marital stress, financial difficulties, depression… If they identify an external source of their struggles, offer support and see what (not if) you could do that might be helpful. (Often a referral or recommendation to a professional or organization is needed.)

Assuming there is not a major external issue affecting their attitude toward work, I would suggest printing the above list of reasons for people feeling apathetic and talk through the list with the employee. “Steve, there are a lot of reasons people get discouraged and aren’t energized about what they are doing. Take a look at this list and tell me which of these seem relevant to you.”

We don’t have the time and space here to address the corrective actions for each source, but work together with your team member to first find out what you could do differently that would be helpful and then also identify some action they can take to make their situation better. CAUTION #1: Don’t let them off the hook without specifying an action they can take. CAUTION #2: Don’t leave without setting up a time and date (typically within a week) to check back with one another on each of your action steps. Otherwise, there is a high probability that no follow through will actually happen.

Consider this:

If you’ve passion- the desire to succeed at all cost, there won’t be any lack or limitation that could stop you. Passion wipes out excuses.

Dr. Assegid Habtewold

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Feel free to comment and share your own observations about apathy, potential sources, and possible action steps.

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June 13, 2022 9:00 am


  • Tracy Brookes says:

    I think apathy can work the other direction as well. I’ve worked for the same company for 30+ years. The administrator for 20 of those years and all the senior physicians had worked with me one on one and expressed their belief of my value to the company. Now that administrator has retired as well as most of the senior physicians. The new administrator used to be the administrative assistant and has basically blocked my ability to meet with the newer, younger physicians. I’m constantly excluded and isolated and my 30+ years of knowledge is completely overlooked. Every single one of the sources mentioned above I have personal experience with just in the last month! So do you have words of wisdom for ‘aging out of the workplace”?

    • Paul White says:

      Tracy, so sorry to hear about your current work situation and experience. Part of the challenge is the bias in our culture toward youth and “new” being more highly valued than experience. I don’t think any of us are going to win that battle. The best course of action MAY be to approach the situation from a “what do I need to do to survive” viewpoint, and take the necessary steps to take care of yourself (and find other areas in your life where you DO feel valued). Not the preferred pathway, but may be the most reality-based.

    • Cole Elquist says:

      Tracy, I would approach this a couple of different ways depending on the personality and character of your new administrator. Let’s say they are looking to impress everyone of their talents while hiding their ignorance as most new leaders do. I remember those days myself avoiding those who challenged my ideas and pretending to understand when I actually didn’t. I would recommend trying to ask questions or make statements of clarification, in order to keep your administrator from being embarrassed. This will help build trust with you and eventually they will start looking to you for one on one clarifications. As the trust grows you will become involved with the new physicians once again.

      What if your new administrator is just climbing the ladder without any concern for the destruction left while doing so? This is never a good situation and one I would personally remove myself from their circle as fast as possible. Let that burning rocket go down on its own, you will be in the same situation as you are now. I would still approach meetings with simple comments of clarification whenever possible. Remember that we have to notice when someone is not understanding the conversation and make statements that bring them up to speed. They will learn to value you and your experience as time goes on. Pay attention to how they react while you are talking, if they look annoyed or bothered then you have missed the needed information they are looking for and you will need to quickly adjust your approach or idea.

      Example: I just want to make sure we are all on the same page with this discussion, my understanding is…. Example 2: Could you please elaborate a bit more on this, in the event someone doesn’t fully understand what you are describing? Example 3: The last time I was in a meeting we had a vast group of different levels of understanding on the subject so to clarify, we are looking at ….

  • Shauna says:

    Interesting. What I am seeing in the healthcare setting is that folks are leaving in droves over pay (travelers brag about what they are making, and people leave to go to work for travel agencies…which is draining the local workplaces.) Burn out after the stress of the last two years and a general feeling of lack of appreciation because of inadequate personal protect supplies (and the subsequent challenges and changes in policies because of that lack), mandates that intrude on personal time (work life balance my foot!) etc etc etc.

    In my own area, there is frustration because of changes forced on us in our department and a flat out lack of appreciation for our knowledge. I am retiring in September. Over it. After 40 years, I have had enough.

    • Paul White says:

      Shauna, understood. A few years ago when I researched and wrote our book on toxic workplaces, I found medical settings to consistently be one of the top 5 toxic work environments. And with COVID-19 and the “traveler” system exploding, many environments have deteriorated further. As I discuss in my series of toxic videos, one aspect of a toxic workplace is that it has a “sick system” — that the rules for functioning are distorted and dysfunctional, which is clearly the case in most hospitals. Major changes need to occur to help these organizations become healthier.

  • Denise says:

    You hit the nail on the head. We just had a supervisor meeting and this is exactly it. Your full time staff are your skeletal system of your system. When you are overworked and asked for more post Covid burnout when you are surrounded by travelers that make double, we are having a mass exodus. I’ve seen trends in the past that are similar but there are many more options now if you’re willing to learn new things and make a change. I wish I was closer to retirement. 26 years of feeling devalued takes its toll. We are not treated like healthcare heroes but ungrateful leaches for wanting financially compensated a fraction of what they are paying agency who are overpriced band-aids for a overextended healthcare system. ❤️❤️❤️ Nursing is emotional blackmail. By knowing you care, we are manipulated to do more and expect less because you care.

    • Paul White says:

      Denise, see my prior comment (to Shauna). Bad situation. First and most important thing to do is to take steps to take care of yourself — physically, emotionally, and relationally. Then it may be necessary to start working a plan to find a healthier workplace. One silver lining of the staff shortage in healthcare is that even healthy workplaces are looking for team members.

  • Suzanne says:

    Not healthcare, but same old corporate story. “Do more with less.” In the meantime, I’m trying to keep up morale and can’t promote people who earned it. The pay increases are horrible, and management’s response: “It is what it is.” Well, that sure makes everyone feel valued. Half the team has left or is planning to leave. Including me.

    If management is apathetic, how do they expect the employees to be?

    • Paul White says:

      “Do more with less” = the formula for stress and burnout. Great point: “If management is apathetic, how do they expect the employees to be?”
      The reality is — in most traditional healthcare work settings, the system is broken. (Much of the dysfunction driven by our payment systems.) I believe the best course of action is to look for places to work that are attempting alternative models of care. Even the hospital administrators and physicians are at their wits end.

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