6 Warning Signs You’re Mentally Checked Out at Work

UPDATED: May 9, 2023
PUBLISHED: June 15, 2016
mentally checked out employee sitting alone at work

Have you ever hit the road for a leisurely drive or stressful commute, only to be spooked by a flashing warning light on your dashboard? It happened to me just the other day and I admit that it unnerved me. I got to a safe area and pulled over to try and figure out what the picture represented. When I couldn’t guess right away, I went the old-fashioned route. I pulled out the owner’s manual and flicked through it to match my picture to the problem. Like paying attention to your car’s signals, you may be able to avert trouble before it starts just by being aware of the warning signs that you’re mentally checked out at work.

As an advocate for curing the workforce of the epidemic of disengagement, I am always linking things I see and hear back to this subject. My recent car problem is no exception. It made me think about the concept of warning signs and how it relates to the business imperative of engagement. Although the signs of disengagement might not be constantly flashing as bright as a neon bar sign, they are there for the naked eye to see if you know what to look for.

No matter what might have caused you to feel mentally checked out at work—whether it’s the job not being what was promised, feeling stuck in place, lack of appreciation and recognition, an ineffective boss, or a toxic workplace—the following warning signs are universal:

1. An ‘I don’t care’ attitude can mean you’re mentally checked out.

This person has given up on even making a pretense of caring about work. They show up and do what is expected but don’t expend the energy or extra effort to make sure the work is high quality. It’s all about just getting it done, not getting it done right.

2. You have an increase in absences or tardiness

The disengaged may have trouble getting up in the morning and arriving to work on time. Instead, they show up when they want, not when they are scheduled to be there. They are also more likely to suffer mental health issues than their engaged colleagues. According to Gallup research, actively disengaged employees were “over six times more likely to report that their job had an ‘extremely negative impact’ on their mental health over the prior six months than all other employees.”

3. You may be mentally checked out if your work quality is declining.

People who used to care about the quality of their work and paid attention to small details no longer have the energy or desire to do so. They simply don’t care if the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. It’s more about checking off the box and moving on to the next task. According to Gallup, teams with high employee engagement saw increased profits (23%), an 18% increase in sales productivity and reduced turnover for both low- and high-turnover organizations (43% and 18%, respectively), among other results, when compared to teams low in employee engagement. Additionally, actively disengaged employees collectively “cost the world $7.8 trillion in lost productivity.”

4. You vocalize dissatisfaction

Is today a good day or a bad one? People who are disengaged may be more likely to vocalize their dissatisfaction with work. They don’t care if others notice because how they feel is how they show up. And they may spread this dissatisfaction and disengagement to other employees.

5. Isolation is another sign you’re mentally checked out.

In the workplace, self-inflicted isolation may take two forms. One can be intentional, where the disengaged employee chooses to opt out—sitting back with arms folded and avoiding participating in the conversation during meetings, hallway chats or at the local lunch joint with colleagues, for example. The second way is in their own head. As Workhuman’s February “Human Workplace Index,” an “online survey of 1,000 full-time workers conducted by Pollfish” each month, found, “nearly 30% of workers have felt invisible at work, and 27% have felt flat-out ignored. And while 38.4% say these feelings haven’t affected their jobs, 18.2% have put in more work as a result, which could lead to serious burnout if their efforts continue to go unrecognized. It can also lead to turnover problems, as 20.4% of employees are less likely to leave their organization if they feel seen.”

6. You’re not offering creativity, innovation or input

Something may happen when a person becomes disengaged and feels mentally checked out—they suddenly appear to become mute. A once defining voice is seemingly nonexistent. They make the choice to stay silent and don’t offer input or advice, even when asked. They are less inspired and retreat to the familiar and routine, doing everything they can to stay under the radar.

Were you surprised by the results, either good or bad, of your self-assessment? It’s always a good thing to pause to reflect on where you are and recalculate where you need to go. A mirror is one of the most important tools one can use on their life and career journey. Don’t be afraid to take a long look!

This article was updated May 2023. Photo by Anel Alijagic/Shutterstock

Ruth Ross

Ruth K. Ross is a speaker, author and engagement evangelist. After a successful 30-year career as a strategic human resources executive with top Fortune 100 companies, Ruth Ross started her own company in San Francisco to focus on the critical intersection where people and process fuse together in organizations. The outpouring of requests from C-suite executives, middle management and service professionals for her thought leadership on engagement validated her belief that disengagement is robbing people of their passions and cutting deeply into corporate profitability. Her recent book, Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Career, is based on Ross’s own experiences and research, exploring the epidemic of employee disengagement in Corporate America. She also is frequently invited to speak at industry conferences and organizations on this topic. Learn more about her book, speaking topics, consulting services, upcoming events and blog at ruthkross.com. Follow her on Twitter, @ruthkross.