Mariya Mathai

Mariya Mathai

Doctoral Researcher at University of East Angila
Mariya Mathai is currently a Doctoral Researcher at University of East Anglia. She has also worked as an Assistant Professor in Alliance School of Business. She is a Masters of Science in Human Resource Management & Industrial Relations from the University of Manchester, UK. She is also an Associate of Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), UK.
Mariya Mathai

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Organizations all over the world have been adopting different strategies to engage their workforce to improve the overall performance and productivity in the workplace. The aim of the paper is to draw relevant academic literature and understand the importance an engaged workforce and the antecedents of employee engagement. The author argues that there are commercial and humanistic reasons in adopting strategies to improve the levels of engagement in the workplace. The article also contains a detailed list of the components that are essential to create a culture of engagement in the workplace. The article concludes with the argument that employees should be able to differentiate between employee engagement and workaholism, and therefore work-life balance is an inevitable part of employee engagement.


Employee engagement has become an increasingly popular and well-used phrase in the business vocabulary over the recent years (Beardwell and Thompson, 2014) as well as one of the most heavily marketed HR ‘buzz words’(Macey and Schneider, 2008). Despite its high importance, there is no clear single definition for employee engagement, although, many researchers and practitioners continue to define the term in different ways. Nevertheless, there is an increasing awareness that employee engagement is pivotal to successful commercial and business performance, where engaged employees are the ‘backbone to good working environments where people are industrious, ethical and accountable’ (Cleland, 2008; Beardwell and Thompson, 2014).

Employee engagement is relatively new term and concept, which entered the academic lexicon in 1990.The first person to mention the term “employee engagement” in a published work and to provide a formal definition of it was William Kahn (1990), who defined it as “harnessing of organisation member’s selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, emotionally, and mentally during role performances”.

One of the most cited examples of employee engagement is that of a janitor in NASA back in the 1960s. During President John Kennedy’s visit to the institute, he happened to ask this janitor what he was doing at NASA. The highly engaged janitor replied that he was helping to put a man on space. From this example, one might argue that engaged employees are the ones who portray not just an “emotional involvement or commitment to the work” but also possess a sense of being valued and recognized at the workplace. The aim of this article is to focus on the importance of employee engagement and to outline the underlying factors that lead to an engaged workforce in organisations.

The business case for employee engagement

According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the Global Workplace study, one of the most influential and latest studies on employee engagement, only 13 percent of employees across 142 countries are engaged at work. Another 63 percent are disengaged while 24 percent of employees are “actively disengaged.” Taken together, these disengaged and “actively disengaged” workers outnumber the engaged workers by a ratio of almost 7:1. It can be argued that the primary reason for large numbers of disengaged workers at the workplace is because the organizations are not taking significant steps to improve employee engagement among the workers. Another argument that can be put forward here is that only a few organizations have the resources and can afford to make their workforce engaged. While a substantial number of organizations finds it a luxury to invest in creating an engaged workforce.

It is essential to understand the reasons of high levels of employee disengagement worldwide in order analyze the effects of better engagement and methods that needs to be considered to improve employee engagement at the workplace. The Tayloristic scientific management is often accused of disengaging the workers from their work and in making the workers “alienated from their work”, as described by Karl Marx. Though, one might argue that the history of disengagement from work began with the introduction of Tayloristic scientific management, it is evident that there are other causal factors for a high level of employee disengagement in the workplace. A lot practices at the workplace in the present age are potential threats that can lead to a disengaged workforce. The recruitment practices of outsourcing, selection of part-time employees for lower skill jobs, contracting workers for a certain period can be reasons for the less engaged workforce. The other reasons for disengagement from work are lack of congruence between the values and abilities of the employee and requirements of the organization, unfavorable organizational culture for the employee, less scope for personal development of the employee, distant relationship with colleagues and supervisors and the high demands of the job.

Due to the increasing awareness about the implications of employee engagement, most organizations are now striving to make their workforce “engaged”. The world’s top-performing organisations understand that employee engagement is a force that drives business outcomes (Gallup, 2014). The commercial incentives of pursuing employee engagement are that higher levels of employee engagement are associated with increased return on assets, higher earning per employee, higher performance, better productivity and growth and lower absenteeism (Towers Perrin, 2008). The humanistic reasons for pursuing engagement at the workplace are that employees portraying a higher level of engagement have an energetic, enjoyable and effective connection with their job (Kahn, 1990 and Macey and Scheider, 2008). Multiple meta-analytic studies have demonstrated robust cross-sectional links between employee engagement and increases in profits, productivity, innovation, beneficial discretionary effort, customer satisfaction and customer retention (Beardwell and Thompson, 2014). Studies by Podsakoff (2002), Halsbesleben (2010) and Christian (2011) pointed out that employee engagement reduces absence, voluntary turnover, sabotage and a range of other negative behaviours.

A Gallup study in the year 2006 of earnings per share (EPS) growth of 89 organisations found that the EPS growth rate of organisations with engagement scores in the top quartile was 2.6 times that of organisations with below-average engagement scores. A second Gallup study in 2006 examined 23,910 business units and compared top quartile and bottom quartile financial performance with engagement scores. They found that those with engagement scores in the bottom quartile averaged 31 – 51 percent more employee turnover, 51 percent more inventory shrinkage and 62 percent more accidents. Also, those with engagement scores in the top quartile averaged 12 per cent higher customer advocacy, 18 percent higher productivity and 12 percent higher profitability. Gallup indicates that higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation. Fifty-nine per cent of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas against only three per cent of disengaged employees.

Tower Perrins-ISR carried out a global survey in 2006 which included data gathered from opinion surveys of over 664,000 employees from over 50 companies around the world, representing a range of industries and sizes. The survey compared the financial performance of organisations with a highly-engaged workforce to their peers with a less-engaged workforce, over a 12 month period. The results indicated a significant difference in bottom-line results in companies with highly engaged employees when compared with companies with low levels of employee engagement. Most noticeable was the near 52 per cent gap in the performance improvement in operating income over the year between companies with highly engaged employees versus companies whose employees had low engagement scores. Companies with high levels of employee engagement improved 19.2 percent in operating income while companies with low levels of employee engagement declined 32.7 percent over the study period.

Macleod and Clarke who submitted a report “Engaging for Success: enhancing performance through employee engagement” to the UK government in 2014 points out that the advantages of having an engaged workforce are many. It was observed that engaged employees in the UK take less sick days than non-engaged employees, an average of 2.69 sick days per year while the disengaged take 6.19(Gallup, 2003). Also, seventy per cent of engaged employees indicate they have a good understanding of how to meet customer needs; only 17 percent of non-engaged employees say the same (Measuring True Employee Engagement, A CIPD Report, 2003).

Another importance of having engaged employees is that they are 87 percent less likely to leave the organisation than the disengaged, thus enabling the organization to retain their staff for a longer period. It was also observed that engaged employees advocate their company or organisation – 67 percent against only three percent of the disengaged. Seventy-eight per cent would recommend their company’s products of services, against 13 percent of the disengaged (Gallup 2003).

According to the research report “Creating an Engaged Workforce” submitted to CIPD in 2010 public sector employees are more strongly but less frequently engaged than in the private sector. Also, public sector employees show higher levels of social and intellectual engagement, whereas private sector employees are more engaged affectively.

All the above studies indicate the importance of having an engaged workforce. Although it is worthy to argue that nature of the job and the sector in which the employee works play an important role when determining the employee engagement. Despite the differences in work and job sector, having an engaged workforce is always beneficial for the individual, the organization and the wider economy of the country. A proactive, energetic, passionate and committed workforce is what organisations desire to have in the 21st century which can be achieved by engaging the workers.

How to build a culture of employee engagement?

“Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your business.”

                                                                                                       -Richard Branson.

Organizations are now adopting new strategies to improve the level of engagement among the employees. Mike Johnson in his book The New Rules for Engagement (2004) stated that “the ability to engage employees, to make them work with our business, is going to be one the greatest organizational battles in the next ten years”.

William Kahn (1990, 1992) suggested an approach of psychological conditions of work to understand the antecedents of employee engagement. He argued that employees should have sufficiently meaningful work, have the personal resources to do that work, and feel psychologically safe in investing themselves in that work in that work. These can be considered as the primary drivers of engagement, but it is evident that there are other factors that lead to an engaged workforce.

Job quality or meaningfulness is an important factor affecting employee engagement. As Frederick Herzberg rightly pointed out, “If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” Taylorist principles of fragmentation, reduction in task discretion and management control still underpin the job design of much low skill, low wage jobs, and these characteristics risk making jobs repetitive, tedious and boring (Morgeson and Campion, 2003; Anderton and Bevan,2014 ). Monotony and lack of autonomy are inherent characteristics of low skill job; therefore, they can hinder the development of an engagement culture whilst they act as barriers to job enrichment, high job quality, and better performance. Hence, improving job quality is an essential step in enhancing employee engagement, especially in the low-skill job.

Leadership plays an important role in employee engagement. To build a culture of high employee engagement, senior executives need to be inspirational, enthusiastic, visible, and accessible. Research by Blessing White (2013) proved that employees who trust their managers appear to have more pride in the organization and are more likely to feel they are applying their individual talents for their own success and that of the organization. First line managers play one of the most important roles in enhancing employee engagement. And, the relationship employees have with their immediate manager determines in large part their levels of engagement, performance, and retention. Because of this centrality, organizations need to pay particular attention to selecting, training, developing, managing, and coaching their first line managers (Miller, 2014).

Job resources, which include social support from colleagues and supervisors, good performance management system, skill variety, job autonomy, and learning opportunities, are found to be positively associated with employee engagement. A healthy social support system at the workplace and senior management and line management that is committed to giving fair and timely appraisals is another factor that will enhance employee engagement. Enabling an employee to use more skills at the workplace will not just help in decrease the possibility of monotony at the workplace, but will also facilitate in the all-round development of the employee, which will, in turn, have a positive effect in the level of employee engagement. When employees are given job autonomy or scope for learning and development, they feel valued and recognised, feel responsible for the welfare of the organisation and will have a sense of moral obligation towards the organisation which can enhance the engagement levels.

The person – organization fit is also an important aspect of employee engagement. The person- organisation fit (P-O fit) can be described as the fit between the knowledge, skills and abilities of the individual on one hand and the demands of the job on the other hand (demand-ability fit; Cable and Judge, 1996) or it could be the fit between the needs and desires of the person and what is provided by the job (need- supplies fit; Cable and DeRue, 2002). It is indicated through research that employee who perceives a high level of congruence between their personal characteristics and the requirements of the job have higher levels of employee engagement.

Thus, one way of improving the employee engagement is by recruiting individuals who hold the same values as the organisation and meets the jobs requirement in a mutually beneficial manner (beneficial for the organisation and the individual).

Organizational integrity plays an important role in improving the employee engagement in a workplace. Organisations have espoused values and behavioural norms. Macleod and Clarke in their report (2014) describes that in organisations where the gap between values and behavioural norms was substantial, a high level of distrust could be seen amongst the employees. While, organisations that were able to bridge the gap between the two by enabling the leadership and the workers to live by the values, a sense of trust in the organization was developed which in turn led to employee engagement.

Employee voice is a strong driver of engagement. An effective and empowered employee voice – employees’ views are sought out; they are listened to and see that their opinions count and make a difference. They speak out and challenge when appropriate. A strong sense of listening and of responsiveness permeates the organisation, enabled by effective communication (Creating an Engaged Workforce, A CIPD report, 2010). Empowering employees through Employee Participation and Involvement (EPI) is beneficial as an initiative to involve the employees in the organisation and in achieving common interests of the organization and the employee.

Effective two-way communication is an essential to good employee engagement. The two-way communication includes downward communications and upward problem-solving. Downward communication focuses on communication from managers to staff with an aim of informing and educating the staff. This can be done through team briefings, company journals, email communication or meetings with the management. The second type of communication- upward problem-solving is designed to tap into employee knowledge and opinion, either at an individual level or through small groups. This is usually done through quality circles, suggestion schemes, attitude surveys and total quality management/ customer care programme (Storey, 2001). The advantage of the communication systems is that makes the employees feel valued and recognized at the organisation.

A harmonious working environment with an effective team, where employees encourage each other can make a considerable difference in the level of employee engagement at the workplace. Also delayering of management and decentralizing some decision-making power to teams were key to team working delivering benefits for the organisation (Bacon and Blyton, 2000 and Blyton and Turnbull, 2004). Thus, organizations should try and build effective and healthy teams, which will always help in establishing the employee engagement of the team members.

Clear and accessible HR policies and practices with a focus on the reward system and employee development are helpful in creating an engaged workforce. The management needs to ensure that the formal rewards and recognition are in place to measure results. Rewards and recognition will act as potential motivators and enable the employee to strive for better results and makes the employee feel appreciated and valued for his or her work. Mentoring and coaching employees about their career path development can also be highly beneficial in establishing trust among employees and in making them more engaged to their work. HR professionals are often called the “guardians of employee engagement” because effective and accessible HR policies are essential to improve the employee engagement of the workplace.

Engaging the workforce emotionally, intellectually and socially is a challenge for the organisations but the consequences are highly beneficial for the organisation and the employees. It can be argued that the most important aspect of employee engagement is that it will increase the morale and improve the culture of the organisation. Also, it is important to adopt different strategies to engage that workforce in different sectors and jobs. It can also be argued that individual perception plays an important role in determining the engagement of an employee.

Thus, some practices of employee engagement have to be individual focused.


It is evident that employee engagement has emerged as a core priority for business strategists and senior leaders in a bid to improve organizational performance. The collection and benchmarking of employee engagement data has also become a profitable industry in itself, with many HR consultancies offering organizations the opportunity to measure the engagement levels of their workforce (Anderton and Bevan, 2014). But it should be understood that there is still a certain level of ambiguity prevailing over the concept of employee engagement. It can always be argued that high level of individual performance and profit of the organisation are causal factors of high employee engagement and not the other way round. Marcus Buckingham concluded from his various longitudinal studies on employee engagement that it is engagement that lead to better performance, and this is a four times stronger relationship than performance leading to engagement. David Guest pointed out in the report submitted by Macleod and Clarke that “much of the discussion of engagement tends to get muddled as to whether it is an attitude, behaviour or an outcome or, indeed, all three”. Nevertheless the emotional attachment towards the job and a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind, which is termed as employee engagement, is always an essential aspect of healthy work life, be it as the causal factor leading to other facets of job or as the resultant of it. Also, Maslach and Leiter (1997) described employee engagement to be the antithesis of burnout. But the research report “Creating an Engaged Workforce” submitted to CIPD in 2010, indicates that too much of employee engagement can lead to burnout. This indicates the difference between employee engagement and workholism and also indicates that employee engagement is beneficial for the employees and the organizations if it is coupled with work-life balance.


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