22. February 2012 18:15
In the HR business, we tend to focus on engagement, how it's created and maintained. Why wouldn't we?
Well, perhaps we should think more about dis-engagement. Why - because we know that engagement lies at one end of a road which leads back to alienation and burnout. This was demonstrated some years ago by Maslach, Schaufeli and Leiter http://bit.ly/y79T9v.
And, to complicate matters, there's constant two way traffic along the route to engagement, because engagement is not a fixed, isolated point in which individuals exist permanently. Even the most energetic, dedicated and determined of us have bad days; days when feel less committed and may think about giving up and walking away from the pressures and frustrations of our job.
But many such people - like Stephen Hester at RBS for example http://bbc.in/wYF09G - will pause, reflect and then return their shoulders on the wheel. And for Hester and his peers, the prospect of re-engaging must look much rosier when it comes with the lure of a giant pay packet, benefits to match and the prospect of personal honours and accolades. So what must it be like for those at the other end of the road: the disengaged, disaffected or those suffering from burnout?
For them, work provides few incentives, little reward and a lot of daily discomfort: "Work isn't exhilarating, it's exhausting. Rather than feeling enthusiasm, employees ... have to drag themselves into work every day. The people around them ask 'what's wrong?' 'are you feeling OK?' They feel increasingly detached from work as something that's meaningful. They may even feel that they no longer are competent at what they do. These feelings and subsequent disengagement emerge over time." (See http://bit.ly/z2gIfI pp 146). For these individuals, unlike Stephen Hester, re-engaging is not an attractive prospect.
This isn't just a theoretical issue. For just as engagement brings all the benefits we know about, disaffected employees can severely damage a business by failing to perform, adding cost and driving customers away. And without tangible incentives, those lower in the hierarchy are more more likely to remain alienated and negative.
So who are the disengaged, how do we find them and how do we help them to reconnect?
To answer these questions we need to understand that disengagement can manifest itself in very different ways. For example, some employees are disengaged because their jobs fail - in whatever ways - to meet their own needs and expectations. They may feel bored, pressurised, underpaid and undervalued by peers or managers.
Skilled managers can often work with employees in this kind of situation to resolve some or all of these issues and return them to being fully functioning members of the work group.
There's another, more difficult scenario: although predisposed to be positive and to throw themselves into their work, some employees may find they're just not able to match their colleagues' sustained high levels of enthusiasm and commitment. As a result, they can feel they fall short of others' norms and standards of behaviour and this may, for them, be just as stressful as being overwhelmed by volume of work, or lacking training or resources.
Peter Warr coined the term the 'vitamin effect' - i.e. too much of a good thing can be bad for you - to describe this this syndrome (http://bit.ly/xYOuKx). In such cases, despite their best efforts, some employees may not be able to keep up the pace and fall by the wayside. As a response to negative feelings about their own competence, they may detach themselves from work and colleagues. They can even develop serious medical conditions hypertension and cardiovascular disease, for example.
Spotting disengaged employees from a corporate perspective should be a basic part of the employee survey process - but it's not always straightforward. First, when looking at the data, we tend to look mainly at the results for the most positive groups of employees. We also see that the scores for certain locations or departments tend to be lower. We'll usually explain the latter (often correctly) by reference to a certain line manager, or poor working conditions, or a threat of redundancy. The scores for related items will provide the necessary evidence. These are the (relatively) easy cases.
It's too easy to gloss over the feedback from isolated individuals who work in highly engaged teams yet, for some reason, aren't on side. The signs will often there in the data - the few individuals who score very, very differently from the positive majority. These may be the burnout cases - How can we tell?
One test will be to look specifically at the scores for survey items that measure personal work engagement. Such questions may not be included in many employee surveys, but As consultants with an occupational psychology background we believe them to be an essential component of any engagement survey. See, for example, the well validated Utrecht Work Engagement Scale http://bit.ly/zhJ48B which measure three dimensions of personal work engagement i.e. vigour, absorption and dedication.
The responses to these questions will provide useful pointers to which employees are least engaged at the time the survey was conducted. But how do we tell whether the data refer to those who are affected in the long term or simply those making a brief (hourly or daily) detour from the road to engagement? Traditional survey methods can't really help here. To be sure that employees are at the burnout end of the road, it's necessary to measure their engagement on a number of occasions in real-time, and to respond accordingly. That's where our new, unique product - EngageMe - comes in.
EngageMe measures feelings of work engagement (on the three Utrecht scales) twice daily over a two or three week period. Simultaneously, data are also collected on what tasks or activities respondents were doing as they answered the questions. At the same time managers - as well as the respondents themselves - have constant and real-time access to the data. The output is a detailed map of engagement for an individual, a group or an entire organisation - at any given moment.
It's then up to the participants - leaders, managers or employees - to act. Trials are underway at the moment.
We'll be reporting the findings in the coming weeks and months, as EngageMe is launched and goes viral. Find out more at http://bit.ly/yh7hI6