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What’s in it for us?

At a recent seminar led by employee
engagement specialists ORC International, one delegate asked what the true
benefit of employee engagement was for employees. Few would argue that
organisations with engaged workforces will be one step ahead on the road to
economic recovery, and the recently published government review of employee
engagement certainly supports that view.

But it is true that, while the arguments in
favour of engagement for profitability are well rehearsed, too little has been
said about how that engagement can be managed in a sustainable way to benefit
employees. In other words, while employers are putting in every effort to get
productive, enthused and energetic employees, they also need to consider the
danger that these levels of commitment could lead to staff burnout.

ORC International is a leader in the field
of employee engagement work in the UK. Research work carried out by the agency
seeks continually to test what it truly means to be engaged, and what the
broader implications of that engagement are.

Employees’ perceptions of their work/life
balance and professional development are measured in nearly all of the 180
employee engagement surveys conducted by ORC International each year, but it’s
possible that this is not enough.

Engagement, on the whole, is still measured
in terms of what is best for the organisation, rather than what is best for the
individual.  What may be missing is a
measurement of the psychological wellbeing of employees and of the impact this
might have on engagement.

A recent study by Cary Cooper at Lancaster
University Management School emphasises the distinction between a ‘narrow’ measure
of engagement, which measures an employee’s level of commitment to an
organisation, and ‘full’ engagement, which attends to an employees’
psychological well-being. People with low psychological well-being, argues
Cooper, are more likely to succumb to illness, and are less well able to adapt
positively to challenges in the workplace.

Employers need to focus not just on
engagement, then, but on sustainability. The concepts of ‘flexible working’ and
‘work/life balance’ are prime examples of working practices which should
promote increased engagement among staff. But employers are starting to
recognise the additional burden this places on employees, who find it harder to
‘switch off’ from their jobs as work/home boundaries are destabilised.

As part of its ongoing development of
employee engagement research, ORC International is taking this view a step
further and looking at new employment models to promote health and wellbeing
among employees. Within this context, we are starting to develop a much broader
approach to the issue of sustainable employee engagement.

The issues which employers will need to
square up to range from providing a pleasant working environment, to supporting
the physical and mental health of the workforce.

Employers should look at promoting healthy
behaviours, such as healthy eating, and an ergonomic work space, but to truly
promote wellbeing in the workplace, they will need to go even further,
providing, for example, access to occupational health services, or counselling.

Employers should also address psychological
issues within the workplace, ensuring that employees are happy with their
working environment and with the nature of the work they are doing.

Finally, workplace relationships need to be
tackled, promoting effective communications and social connections among
employees. In this respect, organisations could be seen to function as
communities, with social and professional exchanges needing the right kind of

Employers have a responsibility to tackle
these and other issues, to ensure that the benefits of having an engaged
workforce are enjoyed not only by the organisations, but by individual workers
as well.

Organisations, therefore, need to view
staff not as a resource, but as assets that need to be invested in and nurtured
in order for employee engagement to be truly valuable. The consequences of not
doing this may well be felt more strongly in the long term.

The real challenge for managers seeking an
engaged workforce is to achieve a dual perspective: to understand the pressures
which are brought to bear on both the organisation and the employee and to
balance these to ensure people can work effectively and sustainably.

The way to do this effectively is to ensure
that people are built into an organisation’s business strategy. We need to
ensure that the employment experience, the psychological contract and the
organisational culture are all conducive to each employee being able to
flourish. Only then will employees being able to give their best at work
without sacrificing themselves in the process.

Alice Streatfeild
Employee Research
ORC International

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