As David Macleod and Nita Clarke have shown in their government-sponsored reports, organisations with more engaged employees provide a better return for investors, have customers who use their products more, have customers who are more satisfied, lower staff turnover rates, lower absenteeism and perform better financially. But what is employee engagement? It’s a process that engages employees meaning they are happier with their organisations, less likely to want to leave and more likely to tell others positive stories about their organisation (an important issue when recruiting future talent).

Not surprisingly, given the background research evidence, there is widespread belief that improving and sustaining high levels of employee engagement is good for business. It is interesting that despite this widespread consensus, there is actually very little firm agreement on what exactly is meant by engagement and it is clearly the case that different practitioners make use of a variety of different items and scales to measure what they refer to as engagement.

Some different approaches to engagement

Source Approach
Gallup (Harter et al., 2002) …the individual’s involvement and satisfaction with, as well as enthusiasm, for work.
Schaufeli et al., 2002 … a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption.
Towers Perrin, 2003 … the extent to which employees put discretionary effort into their work, in the form of extra time, brainpower and energy.
Robinson et al., 2004 … a positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organisation.
Hewitt, 2004 Engaged employees speak positively about the organisation (Say); exert extra effort that contributes to business success (Strive) and is attached to the organisation and don’t want to leave it (Stay)
Stairs et al., 2006 … the extent to which employees thrive at work, are committed to their employer and are motivated to do their best, for the benefit of themselves and the organisation.
Macleod and Clarke, 2009 … a workplace approach designed to ensure that employees are committed to their organisation’s goals and values, motivated to contribute to organisational success, and are able, at the same time, to enhance their own sense of wellbeing.

Despite the fact that some formulations of engagement do make reference to psychological wellbeing, it is actually very rare to see any explicit reference to how employee engagement and PWB might be related. Of course, business-focused engagement (strong attachment, commitment and good citizenship) is important for the organisation, but in some ways it is less important for employees. For those asking ‘what is employee engagement’, there are certainly benefits to employees from being committed to their work and feeling positive about the organisation that they work for, but the long-term benefit for employees themselves is more closely linked to their personal psychological wellbeing than to the overall success of the organisation.

At its most extreme, the narrow engagement approach risks being seen as something that manipulates employees, solely for the benefit of the organisation – to squeeze all possible effort and time out of its workforce. Surely a sustainable approach to engagement must also include specific and substantial recognition of the need to maintain employee wellbeing. This does not mean an approach that merely tries to avoid stress and the worst negative effects that overworking could bring. Rather, it implies an approach that seeks to take action to support and encourage positive employee wellbeing. In fact, of course, high levels of PWB amongst a workforce have also been shown to be associated with many of the positive benefits, for the organisation, that are also linked with high levels of engagement.