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Fostering employee engagement is good for health

February 21, 2011

A movement within psychology is sweeping the profession and HR departments in organisations, that of positive psychology. It is suggested that we should pay at least equal attention to the strengths and potential within human behaviour rather than purely focusing on the problems that arise.

Schaufeli (2002, 2006) found from his research into workplace stress that the polar opposite of this construct was employee engagement. The implication here is that if we can focus on driving employee engagement levels up then employee stress will be diminished and burnout avoided altogether; a positive approach helps to reduce the negative outcome of stress in employees.

There are lots of tools and techniques out there that look specifically at reducing stress in the workplace – interventions aimed at three levels – primary, organisation based, secondary, individual based and tertiary, employee assistance programmes for example (see HSE). However, perhaps we should be rethinking the problem - to reduce stress what strategies can be used to increase engagement.

Macey, Schneider, Barbera & Young, in a fairly recent study (2009) outlined a comprehensive approach to answering the question of ‘how can we increase engagement?’. They suggested that employee engagement is a consequence of four networked components:

  1. The capacity to engage
  2. The motivation to engage
  3. The freedom to engage
  4. The focus on engagement strategy and goals of the organisation

Macey et al (2009) suggest that having the capacity to engage means that the organisation provides employees with the information they need to do their job well, provides learning opportunities, timely feedback on performance and supports work-life balance. As a result of good job design employees will have the motivation to engage. The premise here is that jobs are intrinsically interesting (Hackman and Oldham, 1980) and as a result employees will feel valued, respected and supported at work. The freedom to engage leads to employees having autonomy over their roles and feel trusted enough to innovate and promote change to improve future operations. For this to occur, there has to be support from their managers and the wider organisation along with a feeling of security in their role to be able to be innovative. Finally, there needs to be an alignment between what employees do and the strategy, goals of the organisation. This can be encouraged by a culture/climate that communicates values and goals clearly. Employees will then know what the organisational priorities are and align with these goals.

When these four networked components are in place employees are more likely to persist in tasks – we talk about ‘going the extra mile’ here. They will also respond more positively to challenges and changes. In addition, they will expand their own roles as they innovate and embrace subsequent changes and learning opportunities provided.

So, in short, employee engagement is good not only for individual health as individuals can avoid stress cycles and ultimately burnout, but also good for organisational health as employers obtain more positive workplace behaviours from their employees. Therefore, the key conclusion from this is that ‘organisations should shift their emphasis from getting more out of people to investing more in them, so they are motivated – and able – to bring more of themselves to work every day’ (Schwartz & McCarthy, 2007 p64).

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