Q. Employee engagement has been defined in many different ways. How do you define it?
Very often, the definitions of employee engagement sound more like definitions for ‘organizational commitment’ or ‘job satisfaction’. Engagement is not those things. The best definition comes from the first major study on the topic by William Kahn at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. The paper came out in 1990, but it wasn't until the 2000s that people started to pay attention to it. According to Kahn, engagement is “the extent to which people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively and emotionally when performing a task or job.” We often say that when people are engaged, they bring all aspects of themselves into the performance of whatever it is they are doing. Overall, it is a multi-dimensional motivational state.
Q. Talk a bit about the state at the opposite end of the spectrum: burnout.
Both burnout and disengagement result from two things: high job demands and limited resources. On the flip side, high engagement, strong job performance and well-being result from having high job resources and fewer job demands. Job demands are features of a role that can have physiological or psychological costs to the employee. Things like work overload, job insecurity, role ambiguity, time pressure and role conflict. Job resources are features of a role that help the individual achieve their work goals. They reduce job demands and encourage growth and learning and include things like having autonomy over how you perform your job, receiving timely feedback, and having social support and task variety.
If you look at what we are seeing today, many areas of work—especially in the realm of nursing and healthcare—there are extremely high job demands and limited resources. And the result is high levels of exhaustion, stress, burnout and turnover. I do think the tables are turning somewhat, in that organizations now realize that they have to pay more attention to their employees if they want to be able to attract and retain strong performers. What that means is, they have to be more proactive to get them engaged—which they might not have had to do in the past.
Q. You suggest organizations pay more attention to ‘tangible resources’ that support an employee's basic psychological needs, growth and development, and health. What do these look like?
Some powerful ones include providing training and development opportunities, offering flexible work arrangements, work-life balance programs, health and wellness programs and career development. These elements create what I call a ‘caring human resource management (HRM) system’. Offering a bundle of practices like this signals to employees that the organization truly cares about them and is providing them with resources to improve their well-being.
There are good reasons to do this: We know from the research that both employee care and engagement are very important, and that both are related to work outcomes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job performance and turnover as well as greater organizational performance.
Q. Can you provide an example of a company that is really walking the talk when it comes to caring about their employees?
One I really admire is Klick Health, a Toronto-based marketing firm that specializes in healthcare and life sciences. At the beginning of the pandemic, they took their in-office flu shot clinic on the road, as part of their commitment to keep team members and their families healthy. They actually transformed two vans into a mobile flu shot clinic, complete with registered nurses, and they went to team members’ homes.
They also had other initiatives in place, like relaying safety measures to customers, donating thousands of masks to hospitals and long-term care facilities, and making sure employees had access to complimentary fitness programs, mental health resources and more. That is a prime example of a caring organization. They care about all of their major stakeholders: employees, customers and the community. Not surprisingly, they have been named one of Canada’s best managed companies for 13 straight years.
Q. Why is it so important to be aware of employees’ personal needs and feelings?
Only once there is a clear understanding of employees’ needs, you can then consider how your organization can meet and satisfy those needs. Typically, this will involve reducing job demands or providing more resources. Providing employees with something they have not asked for—such as more vacation days—is not going to benefit your organization or employees. What is fundamental here is employee input and involvement for identifying their needs, and the best way to meet them.
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Q. What if employees ask for something that you’re unable to provide?
At that point, you need to have a discussion about how you can make things work. The answer isn't necessarily ‘No, we can't do that’; it's, ‘Let's talk about this and see if we can come up with a way to make it work to some degree’. As the pandemic recedes, we're seeing some leaders say, ‘We need you back in the office, five days a week’. But if the employee really wants it, how about if you let them work at home two days a week? And once in a while, you can even make it three? Would that work for them? It’s important to at least try to come up with a compromise that will work for everyone concerned.
It’s actually interesting to see how employees have responded to working at home. Some couldn’t wait to get out of their houses and back into the office, while others don’t ever want to go back. Most employees now realize that there are some clear benefits to being at the office as well as clear benefits to being at home. And of course, organizations are realizing this as well. Ultimately, there has to be a certain degree of flexibility around telecommuting. And that means giving employees some choice about where they want to work.
New research on telecommuting has found that employees who work in organizations that offer it have more engaged employees. Clearly, offering some opportunity to work from home is going to be very beneficial for organizations, especially when it comes to attracting new employees, retaining the ones you have and engaging them all.
Q. What is the end result of genuinely caring for your employees?
When an employee feels that the company is invested in their needs and well-being, they are likely to reciprocate and care more about the organization’s success. This is known as Organizational Support Theory. In my work I’ve suggested that when employees believe the organization cares about them, they reciprocate by caring about the organization, and this is enacted by demonstrating higher levels of engagement and helping the organization achieve its goals and objectives.
Q. Is there a difference between organization engagement and job engagement?
Definitely. A person can be engaged with their day-to-day work and not give much thought to the broader organization, or even think negatively towards it. And the reverse can also be true: perhaps an employee thrives on being part of a particular company, but their interests and skills don’t align with their current job. The distinction is important, because the drivers and consequences of job and organization engagement are not the same.
In my own research, I found that both job engagement and organization engagement are positively related to work outcomes including job satisfaction, organizational commitment and organizational citizenship behaviour—and negatively related to intention to quit. However, all of these relationships were somewhat stronger when there was high organization engagement.
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Q. You believe good HR policies aren’t enough. What else is required?
The success of even the best HR policies rests on employees’ perceptions of those policies. Employees are smart, and they know when organizations are doing something to get more out of them or improve their performance. As they try to understand why their company is doing something, employees form ‘attributions’ in their minds. And if they don't believe that an action is authentic or sincere, they will not form a caring-related attribution.
A study was recently published that looked at performance-based pay and its effect on employees. It showed that performance-based pay can result in an increase in mental health problems for employees, especially for lower performing and older workers. The thing about high performance work systems is that they focus mostly on improving performance for the company, rather than caring about employee health and well-being.
Q. What are some of the costs of being known as an uncaring company?
In these companies there is a lot more turnover, which means more resources are spent towards recruiting and training--while the employees who stay are left to pick up the pieces and are more likely to burn themselves out. Not to mention the reputational damage of these organizations.
Q. What are the initial steps for creating a caring culture and an engaged workforce?
If you have years and years of employees being disengaged, you can't just flick a switch and say, ‘Hey everyone, it’s time to get engaged, because, guess what, we're giving you more vacation time!’ It doesn't work that way. It's really a matter of how long things have been going on in a way that has resulted in disengagement. If you've got a history of treating people poorly, it's going to take a lot of time—maybe even a change in management—before you see meaningful change.
A recent study found that nine out of 10 working Canadians are more likely to work for an employer that cares about them and their overall health and well-being. The need for greater care for employees is here to stay.
Alan Saks is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour and HR Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, with a cross-appointment to the Rotman School of Management. This interview originally took the form of a podcast: The Executive Summary is the Rotman School’s new monthly podcast offering a quick digest of research insights and innovative thinking from the faculty of Canada’s leading business school.
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]