Business of Well-being

What Does Employee Engagement mean to You?

Dr. Tyler Amell
CoreHealth Technologies
Engagement Strategies

The first thought that likely springs to mind might well be that heady period that follows a co-worker’s marriage proposal.  Happy days. But unfortunately, from a workplace health, wellbeing and productivity perspective, Employee Engagement has two distinct, and potentially confusing interpretations.

I ran into this issue head-on during a conference presentation I gave last spring. The subject of my talk was Health, Productivity and Engagement, and how these three concepts are interrelated and necessary to cultivate in high performing organizations, those that make up today’s top workplaces.  And there is plenty of evidence to support their enthusiasm.

Just under half my audience took the concept of engagement to mean something different to my intended message regarding participation in employer sponsored wellbeing initiatives.  The other half interpreted the concept as I had intended: When people are enthusiastic about their work and workplace, they provide greater discretionary effort, resulting in higher productivity.

The latter concept is one that is frequently discussed among insightful corporate leaders, and is often high on the list of priorities for organizations striving to be employers of choice in a highly competitive global work environment, thus ensuring higher levels of productivity are attained.

Another very sizeable consideration is the fact that ill-health related productivity loss is estimated to cost the U.S. economy in excess of $530 Billion annually, based upon 2018 data from the Integrated Benefits Institute, a San Francisco-based leader in benchmarking in the health and productivity market.  Similarly, the lost productivity is the U.S. amounts to over 1.4 Billion days of absence or impaired performance annually.

It’s obvious that people cannot be as productive if they are ill or injured.  And people cannot be engaged if their discretionary effort is impacted by personal injury or illness.  The logical conclusion is that productivity and engagement, for both the individual and the organization, rest on a platform of health.

The Gallup Organization has some very insightful data on employee engagement, but the numbers are not encouraging.  According to the Gallup data, worldwide levels of employee engagement are at 15%, with variation by geographic region.

That’s not to say that 85% of companies haven’t attempted to improve their results.  But the issue may lie in how those efforts have been interpreted by employees.  Is the message “head” or “heart” driven?  Is employee health and wellbeing the empathetic, primary objective, with productivity being the unstated rational dividend?  Or is increased productivity the primary objective?  If there is a sense that employee engagement efforts represent thinly veiled boardroom attempts to boost bottom line results, the lack of enthusiasm on the “shop floor” will reflect that.

Health and wellness, at its core, is a personal issue.  Whether an individual employee chooses to engage, or not, in a corporate wellness program may well be the result of how they interpret the motives behind this corporate offering.  In supportive corporate environments, employee wellness programs promote engagement by creating and sustaining a sense of community in the workplace.  They foster work-related relationships that reflect the supportive corporate culture. These individual relationships meld into groups, and provide a fertile base that nurtures teamwork and collaboration, valuable elements of a contemporary corporate ethic.

Macey and Schneider published an interesting summary in the academic journal Industrial and Organizational Psychology where they differentiate between various types of employee engagement, all based in organizational psychology.  The authors noted three types:

●        Psychological State Engagement,

●        Behavioral Engagement, and

●        Trait Engagement.

Engagement as a psychological state refers to employee involvement and commitment. Behavioral engagement is a demonstration of proactive, personal initiative. And trait engagement is demonstrated through positive views on life and work. As well, other factors, such as the nature of work, and the type of leadership have an obvious effect on these elements of employee engagement.

They strongly suggest that all types should be measured in engagement surveys and employee sentiment analysis.  These surveys have seen a substantial increase in their use in the past few years as organizations struggle with assessing and improving employee engagement as they look to improve productivity.

Those organizations in the top quartile of Gallup’s global employee database are 21% more profitable, and 17% more productive than those in the bottom quartile.  And these numbers don’t include other significant results in areas such as higher levels of quality, safety and perhaps most importantly, valuable staff retention. Other sources of information find similarly positive outcomes. But unfortunately, for some people leaders and the organizations they oversee, the concept of engagement is more important than the health of their workforce.

Which brings us to the second interpretation of Employee Engagement.  Many professionals engaged in workplace health and wellbeing limit the concept of engagement to the raw number of people participating in wellbeing programming, or interested in assessing and improving their personal health.  This obviously leads to workplace health and wellbeing discussions that are limited in scope and not necessarily aligned with the priorities of people leaders in organizations - a group that tends to be more focused on the concept of enthusiasm for their work and workplace, discretionary effort, and of course, productivity.

I believe it would be beneficial, on a number of levels, for wellbeing services vendors, insurance carriers, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), and Third Party Administrators (TPAs) to rethink their approach to workplace health, wellbeing and productivity.  This would represent a pivot away from the idea that health costs (absenteeism, disability, pharmacy, medical and health) should be the primary considerations for people leaders. It would be a move toward viewing employee engagement as a focus on the health of their workers, which then leads to positive results in increased engagement, discretionary effort and productivity.

Research, surveys, and expert opinion are most often less-than-perfect interpretations of reality.  Add in the increasingly complex trends in employment types such as freelancers, contractors and consultants, and the effect they have on the employee base, and obvious conclusions becomes less so. But all signs point to one, indisputable fact: a healthier workforce is also a happier, more cohesive and ultimately, a more productive one.

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