Somewhere between happy & engaged

By Jeremy Salter, Employee Engagement Lead, GRG Australia

For decades research has supported claims that employee engagement boosts productivity. Gallup suggests it improves profitability as much as 22 percent.

Employee engagement is a serious business. According to a Bersin & Associates report US organisations spend more than 720 million dollars a year on employee engagement and this is predicted to rise to 1.5 billion dollars.

But is this investment actually worthwhile? If you read Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report you might think not as nearly seventy percent of America’s employees are not engaged.

If so much money is being pumped into employee engagement and yet engagement is still low, are we missing something? Whilst few doubt the importance of employee engagement, increasing numbers of practitioners are calling for a different approach.

Positive psychology has entered the debate and placed employee happiness on the table for discussion. The difference between engagement and happiness is a hot topic for HR and Business chats lately.

Definitions of employee engagement and employee happiness are facing off in discussions that divide opinion. On one side of the debate are those who argue that employee’s happiness is impossible to measure, internally driven and has no bearing on their performance.

For instance, Alison Beard in The Happiness Backlash, Harvard Business Review says: “Happiness certainly can’t be drawn out of us by employers or other external forces”.

Others go further. In the article The Research We’ve Ignored About Happiness at Work, Harvard Business Review, André Spicer Carl Cederström points out that there is: “A stream of research shows some contradictory results about the relationship between happiness — which is often defined as ‘job satisfaction’ — and productivity.”

On the other side of the debate are those who argue that employee engagement, as traditionally defined is focused too much on the needs to the employer.

The most common definition of engagement is “the willingness to invest discretionary effort at work.” Whilst this may sound good for an employer it can, as noted by Tony Schwartz, be a recipe for burnout as an employee’s willingness does not always guarantee their ability.

An engagement study by Towers Watson (2012)— found that high engagement as it has been traditionally defined is no longer sufficient to fuel the highest levels of performance.

A further criticism of employee engagement is its narrow focus.

‘When we only try to understand and affect what happens at work, we ignore the most basic tenet of person-organisation fit: employees bring their whole selves to work. What happens after the workday may be just as important as what happens during it.’ says Susan LaMotte, in Employee Engagement Depends on What Happens Outside of the Office, Harvard Business Review.

Whilst the engagement versus happiness debate polarises opinion, a middle ground is emerging. Positive psychology is leading the way.

‘We highlight the opportunities that lie in taking a more person-centred approach to employee engagement and introduce a model of positive engagement that draws on the parallels constructs between happiness & engagement’ – Martin Stairs & Martin Galpin – Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology & Work.

Changes in the way we debate employee happiness & engagement reflect the expectations of a new generation of employees. “Indeed, 60% of Millennials in a recent report revealed that “sense of purpose” was a big reason behind their choice of employer.” According to Adi Gaskel, How to Engage the Millennial Workforce, Forbes.

Millennials are more willing to mix work & life. Old divisions are blurring. For many of these employees, work has the potential to be more than just work. Meaning and purpose are moving up employees wish lists. Work is fulfilling needs that were once only fulfilled outside of work.

As a result how we measure an employee’s relationship with work and the organisation they work for is changing. A middle ground is emerging and the gap between notions of employee engagement and employee happiness is closing. The motivational sweet spot for a new generation of employees is somewhere between happy and engaged.

This article was first seen on Grass Roots Australia blog

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