The percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. steadily increased over the last decade, leveling out at 36% in 2020. But the challenges of the pandemic have put an end to that upward trend, and 2021 became the first year since 2009 where engagement decreased, according to Gallup.

In 2021, only about one-third (34%) of U.S. employees were engaged at work, according to a random sample of 57,022 full-time and part-time employees surveyed throughout the year. And while engagement dropped, disengagement increased. The data also showed that 16% of employees were actively disengaged last year, compared to 14% in 2020.

Notably, Gallup reports that engagement held steady during the first half of 2021, matching the 36% final result from 2020. The second half of 2021 was a different story. Engagement dropped in the latter months, causing the annual figure to fall a full two percentage points.

The sudden decrease in engagement is not exactly shocking and could reasonably be attributed to a variety of causes. For one thing, many employers and employees alike were eager to return to normal in the second half of 2021. As a result, many of the accommodations made to support employees during the early stages of the pandemic disappeared over time. And while support dwindled, it became increasingly clear that a state of upheaval is the new normal.

To measure employee engagement, Gallup asked randomly-selected survey respondents about workplace elements like clarity of expectations, development opportunities, and opinions being heard at work. Each of these elements profoundly influences productivity, profitability, employee retention, and general well being. Employees become actively disengaged when these needs are unaddressed or unmet.

Where should employers go from here?

Don’t lose sight of foundational elements of the employee experience. Gallup’s survey data revealed the greatest declines in clarity of expectations, access to necessary materials or resources, and opportunities for employees to work to their full potential in 2021. Each of these workplace elements defines the employee experience and determines engagement. Moving forward, employers should make clear communication a priority, and evaluate their current organizational processes with a critical eye.

Be aware that managers may be experiencing burnout. Among all of the employees surveyed, managers fared the worst regarding clarity of expectations and feeling as if they have someone supporting their development. A burned out manager can have a serious ripple effect on the health of your organization, because 70% of a team’s engagement is influenced by managers. Employers should routinely check-in with managers and offer support wherever possible.

Prioritize employees’ mental and physical health. Employees want and need to feel cared for. During the first half of 2020, Gallup found that 50% of employees strongly agreed that they felt well prepared to do their job. In 2021, this figure dropped by seven percentage points. As it becomes increasingly clear that the uncertainty of the pandemic isn’t going away, show your employees that you’re still supporting them with a robust benefits package. Wellness benefits that support your employees mental and physical health are essential to maintain an engaged workforce.