Employee Experience

When you find your servant is your master

Do we understand work engagement…in order to measure it?

In recent years, the concept of work engagement has become a buzzword in the HR world. Assessing job satisfaction has almost become history, handing over its absolute throne to work engagement. Everyone talks about work engagement, everyone evaluates and tries to build it within their organizations, but do we really understand work engagement?

It still seems that we do not distinguish work engagement from some very similar concepts (e.g. job satisfaction) and that we do not talk enough about the shortcomings that threaten to “dethrone” it and send it into history… It seems that everyone in the HR world wants their employees to be engaged, but, on the other hand, it seems so hard, or even impossible to catch this “Chesire cat”. Namely, according to the Gallup survey, published in 2019, only 15% of employees were globally engaged at work while the rest of the employees were “either not engaged or actively disengaged”.

Is this really possible, and whose responsibility is it? And, let’s be honest, is it sustainable to look for and measure something so poorly represented? 

First things first – the concept of work engagement is not so fresh. It has been on the work and organizational psychology table for more than 30 years. Starting with William Kahn’s article “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement”, which was published exactly 32 years ago in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal, this concept could currently be found in 150,000 scientific papers (source: Google scholar).

If we take into account that “work engagement” is used interchangeably with “employee engagement”, this number is even higher and climbs to more than 300,000 results. The first question is definitely – what really gave this concept so much popularity and steady growth of interest in the scientific community? Is there something special about it?

It seems that its attractiveness lies in the fact that, unlike job satisfaction, it allows us to evaluate something much more dynamic, respectively, dedication, vigor, and absorption (Bakker & Albrecht, 2018). So, by evaluating work engagement, we get an insight into the level of energy, meaning, enthusiasm, inspiration, and work devotion. It seems that we have been waiting for this “mojo” all this time. On the other hand, job satisfaction points to a state characterized by peace, perseverance, and relaxation, but not activation (Bakker & Albrecht, 2018).

It is not enough to be satisfied and calm, but energetic, creative, and dedicated. Furthermore, work engagement has enabled us to move away from tense, irritable, and unhealthy workaholism. And let’s be honest, workaholics are sometimes the most desirable people in ambitious companies…but we somehow realized that workaholism is unsustainable for both an employee and a company that wants to keep it.

New generations have obviously shown us that, in addition to working hard, it is important to enjoy life. Additionally, if we ask ourselves what is the opposite of burnout (and not just its mere absence) – work engagement allows us to assess something more – a sense of meaning and inspiration among our employees. It seems that we are on the threshold of something we actually longed for… But it still seems that we are somehow on the devil’s playground.

First of all, what do we assess when we assess work engagement? Do we really understand what an engaged employee means?

Judging by one of the most influential models in the field of work and organizational psychology, the Job Demands Resources model by Arnold Bakker and colleagues (Bakker & Demerouti, 2017), work engagement is the result of an interplay between job demands and job resources. Job demands include all those work stressors such as work pressure, work-home conflict, unmanageable work tasks, and negative interpersonal relationships – in a nutshell –  mental, emotional, and physical demands.

On the contrary,  job resources include autonomy, support, meaningful work, role clarity, a stimulating atmosphere, developmental opportunities, and warm interpersonal relationships… We know that stress-free work is almost a non-existent concept, but that is why job resources should enable us to restore and keep our energy, enthusiasm, commitment, and sense of meaning. So the thing is in the work environment. If we say that our employees are engaged or disengaged – that indicates the amount of resources available to them.

A large survey of employees from Serbia conducted by Ivana Petrovic, Svetlana Cizmic, and Milica Vukelic from the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, showed that work engagement significantly and highly correlates with organizational support (Petrovic et al, 2017). Also, it has been shown that employees who are in managerial positions and who are more educated are more engaged than employees who are less educated and in lower position jobs.

Back to the basics – Khan’s research on engagement at work included camp counselors and members of an architecture firm which speaks in favor of slightly better working conditions and more inspiring jobs as prerequisites for expressing personal self and being engaged.  So, one part of the work engagement equation definitely lies in the employees’ microsystem made from working conditions, type of industry, and type of job…

The question remaining is – who else is responsible for engagement?

It is within this part that we come to a somewhat deeper implication of this concept. Namely, we can ask ourselves what does an engaged employee mean in relation to the societal mission of an organization? Is it worthwhile to track the level of employee engagement in a situation when a company operates unethically or when we are faced with very difficult, inhumane working conditions? What does it mean to be engaged when you work for a company that pollutes the environment, endangers human health, and drains the essential resources of this planet? Professor Matthijs Bal, at the Lincoln International Business School, uses these and similar arguments when questioning measures of productivity and well-being at work (Bal, 2020). 

Some of the top five polluting industries in the world like food retail, fashion industry, and energy industry are very attractive employers. As we all know, they are offering very prospective career opportunities and even better working conditions. Being productive in these industries could imply more pollution and damage to our planet. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that it is not easy to be a good and dedicated worker when we are in the middle of a global crisis. It is not easy to be engaged in a situation of war, bad social circumstances, or poverty… As Bal (2020) points out, we often try to remove dissatisfaction, burnout, and depression from our table without asking ourselves, intimately, about their cause.

Sometimes, the road to happiness lies in accepting and understanding the way things around us are…  To talk openly about negative experiences at work and the specificities of our work environment.

Here and there, things are not so easily comparable and equal everywhere. In an attempt to create an engaged employee, we begin to close our eyes to the obvious problems, enslaving ourselves to the pursuit of engagement as an unattainable El Dorado. It is definitely a privilege to be engaged at work, and thus a more inclusive concept is needed. Is it the concept of decent work (Bal, 2020) or sustainable work that we should all strive for? Time will tell… For the beginning (and for the end), let’s learn how not to serve this master, but rather to listen to our employees whether they are (dis)engaged, (dis)satisfied, or (un)attached to their work.

Author: Milica Vukelić, Assistant Professor in Work and Organizational Psychology at University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology

Publication: HR World Magazine No. 8 (2022)

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