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What is employee engagement?

The engagement survey is part of many organisation’s calendar, an opportunity to understand how employees are experiencing their work. But what actually is engagement, and more importantly, what is the utility in understanding it?

It seems to be common and accepted knowledge that 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

employee engagement

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 psychological wellbeing 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.

At Robertson Cooper, we champion a more sustainable approach to engagement, one that 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.

Engagement has its place in creating more Good Days at Work, however the truth is that it is ‘not enough’ and we need to look at wellbeing alongside engagement to create a good and sustainable experience of work.

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