Although it has been an established topic since the 1990s, employee engagement has fast become firmly embedded as a core area of HR and of organisational practice. It’s also increasingly making its way into boardroom papers and leadership conversations. Despite this, the research on employee engagement is still underdeveloped. Our recent evidence review takes a deep dive into what it is (and is not), how to measure it, and what claims we can make about how it increases productivity.
While HR concepts like recruitment, diversity, health and safety are generally concrete in what we mean and what we measure, employee engagement suffers from being both popular and hard to define. Of the companies in the FTSE 100, 10% include an employee engagement in their bonus metrics, which might seem like a small proportion, but it is second only to health and safety and higher than diversity and inclusion. At the same time, there is no one single definition of what we mean by employee engagement. The term is used interchangeably with other connected concepts like happiness, loyalty, focus and commitment to work, commitment to the organisation, individual purpose, and job satisfaction. The biggest problem however is the tendency to add other concepts together, to make one single employee engagement score.
What is employee engagement?
In academic research, employee engagement is usually a psychological state - a state of being that an individual is (or isn’t) in. Definitions vary, but the most common is work engagement -an employees’ ‘vigour’ towards their work, dedication to their work, and absorption in their work. This concept is very well researched and evidenced. It is also the most reliable aspect of engagement we can measure. In practice-based approaches though, employee engagement doesn’t have a single definition, and it can mean a psychological state, or refer to a composite of metrics. This usually includes work engagement alongside factors that we know affect engagement, and sometimes includes different but related concepts like workplace culture and job satisfaction. The most well-known example of this is the Gallup Q12, which includes interconnected concepts under one single measure. The problem with this, as one academic commentator sums up, is “attaching a name to a collection of survey items does not make it a construct”.
Umbrella concepts aren’t inherently bad; we see the same with concepts like culture or inclusion. The problem lies in the tendency to want one single metric number that we can track over time. When we take a broad measure of several concepts and add them up to make one measure, you don’t have any way to identify what is impacting what. This is particularly an issue with employee engagement when we know that so many of the interrelated topics, including motivation, satisfaction, wellbeing, and commitment to work, directly affect each other. You can effectively end up measuring both cause and effect under one metric.
Improving our understanding of employee engagement
One way to tackle this confusion is to use ‘work engagement’ when what is needed is a single measure and then to use employee engagement as an umbrella term, while resisting the temptation to combine it in one metric.
Once we get past that confusion, the evidence base for employee engagement becomes more promising. The review identifies factors that might make up our umbrella of employee engagement, such as work engagement; organisational engagement and loyalty; identification with an organisation; motivation to work, and how meaningful we find our work. It also helps to identify what factors can contribute to employee engagement. For example, we have evidence that factors such as individual differences; job design; people management practices, relationships, support from colleagues, organisational factors such as purpose, etc, all contribute to employees being more engaged. And finally, it means we can review the outcomes of employee engagement, such as performance (both task performance and overall organisational performance), wellbeing, and job satisfaction. The evidence base is growing, and we are starting to see tangible evidence that employee engagement can contribute to other performance metrics. We’ll be revisiting this in our future work too, including an evidence review into performance.
While employee engagement is having its moment, it will be hugely tempting to make claims about what it can do – especially when we are trying to convince our organisations to invest in employee support and wellbeing. But the evidence for employee engagement will continue to be patchy if we still treat it both as a single measure and an umbrella. If you are using it in your practice or your policies, be sure to interrogate exactly what you’re measuring and why – and be clear with your definitions and what you’re trying to achieve.
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