Work engagement: drivers and effects

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Maartje Bakhuys Roozeboom and Roos Schelvis, TNO, the Netherlands

Introduction

The concept of work engagement fits into the tradition of positive psychology, a recent paradigm shift in psychology which focuses on mental health rather than mental illness. This article gives an introduction to the concept of work engagement. Different definitions and viewpoints of the work engagement concept are discussed. This article will discuss the drivers of work engagement, as well as the associated effects that work engagement has on the health and wellbeing of workers and organisations. Finally, directions for interventions, policy and practice to encourage work-engagement among employees are presented and discussed.

What is work engagement?

Work engagement is defined as positive behaviour or a positive state of mind at work that leads to positive work-related outcomes [1]. Employees with high levels of work engagement are energetic and dedicated to their work and immersed to their work. The concept of work engagement fits into the tradition of positive psychology , a field in psychology which focuses on ways to increase wellbeing; rather than diagnosing or treating mental illness [1]. .

Development of the work engagement concept

The field of positive psychology is relatively young, but has its theoretical grounds in earlier studies on wellbeing. Csikszentmihalyi, for example, introduced the concept of flow in 1988 [2]. Flow refers to the mental state of mind in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed, focused and involved in an activity and enjoying the activity. Historically in the scientific literature, two general perspectives on wellbeing are distinguished: the hedonic approach and the eudaimonic approach.

The hedonic approach assumes that wellbeing is caused by positive experiences that outbalance negative experiences in combination with a satisfaction with life. The hedonic approach defines wellbeing in terms of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance. According to this approach, happiness can be achieved by experiencing more positive than negative emotions and by being satisfied with one’s life. [3]

The eudamonic approach, in contrast, considers wellbeing as more than just positive experiences. Eudamonic wellbeing emphasises the importance of human growth and the urge of individuals to strive for perfection in accordance with their own capabilities. The eudemonic approach focuses on achieving personal goals, personal growth, the feeling of control and self-acceptance and the use of personal potential [4]. According to this approach, happiness can only be achieved when these conditions are met. More recent articles on work-engagement combine the two approaches, meaning that work engagement is about job satisfaction job satisfaction: theories and definitions and positive work experiences; as well as about involvement, commitment, passion, energy, personal growth and giving meaning to one’s (work) life.

In a systematic review of publications on work engagement, which appeared between 1990 and 2007, Simpson [5] distinguishes between four research directions: personal engagement [6], employee engagement [7], burnout and engagement as two ends of one continuum [8], and burnout and engagement as independent factors [9]. The following sections will present a summary of each of these four research directions.

Personal engagement

The earliest definition of engagement is posed by Kahn [6]. He described the concept of personal engagement in terms of behaviour: ‘the behaviours by which people bring in or leave out their personal selves during work role performance [6], p. 694”. These behaviours are brought about by a state of mind that is characterised as: 'physically involved', ‘cognitively vigilant' and 'emotionally connected' to the work.

Employee engagement

Harter and colleagues [7] take a more practical perspective to engagement, which they called employee engagement. This concept is defined as ‘the individuals’ involvement and satisfaction, as well as enthusiasm for work’ [7, p.269]. Harter and colleagues [7], in line with other researchers, consider engaged employees as emotionally connected to others and cognitively vigilant.

Burnout and engagement: two ends of a continuum

Maslach and Leiter [8] conceptually connect engagement to burnout. According to their perspective, burnout and work-engagement are two ends of one continuum. Burnout, thus, is a ‘lack of work engagement’, characterized by 'exhaustion', 'cynicism' and 'inefficacy'. Work-engagement is the opposite (i.e., the absence of burnout) and is characterised by 'vitality', 'commitment' and high degree of 'efficacy'. Every employee could be located somewhere on the continuum between burnout and engagement.

Burnout and engagement: independent factors

In contrast, to Maslach and Leiters’s view, González-Roma, Schaufeli, Bakker & Lloret [9] stated that work-engagement and burnout should be seen as independent factors instead of opposite poles. Schaufeli and Bakker [10] define work-engagement as “a positive affective-cognitive state, characterized by vigour, dedication, and absorption”. The concept comprises three dimensions: vigour, dedication and absorption. Vigour is characterized by high levels of energy, mental resilience, willingness to put effort in one’s work and perseverance even when employees are confronted with difficulties. Dedication refers to a strong commitment to work that is sensed as useful and meaningful, inspiring and challenging and evokes feelings of pride and enthusiasm. Absorption is characterized by fully concentrating on and being deeply absorbed by work in a pleasant way. When employees are absorbed by their work they experience that time passes by quickly and it is difficult to detach themselves from the work.

Work engagement, overengagement and workaholism

In the scientific literature, a distinction is made between work engagement and workhaholism [11]. Workers with high levels of work engagement work hard because they are passionate and enthusiastic about their work. Workaholics work hard because they cannot detach themselves from their work in an excessive and compulsive way. Gorgievsky and Bakker [12] found that work-engagement is positively related to productivity, whereas this relation for workaholics is still equivocal. A study by Shimazu, Schaufeli, Kubota and Kawakami [13] showed that workaholism is related to an increase in ill-health and a decrease in life satisfaction. Whereas an increase in work engagement was observed to be related to a decrease in ill-health and an increase in both life satisfaction and productivity. Another distinction between workaholism and work-enjoyment is that workaholism is a more or less stable personality trait, whereas the level of work engagement is affected by aspects of the job and the organisation and can fluctuate by week and even by day [14]. Furthermore, there is some preliminary evidence of a downside of work engagement. It seems that workers can also be too engaged. Over-engaged workers expand their resources to be able to perform extrarole behaviours, sometimes resulting in working overtime at the cost of interference with family duties [15]. If work interferes with home regularly, it undermines recovery from work. In the long run this can lead to health problems [16]. Bakker, Albrecht and Leiter [17] propose that there is a limit to engagement, determined by overly involvement in work activities. The relation between engagement, over-engagement and workhaholism needs further clarification [17].

Drivers of work engagement

In the last decades, a lot of research has focused on the wellbeing of employees. There are a lot of theoretical models on occupational wellbeing, often with a focus on work-related stress, such as the: Job Demands Control (support) model [18], the Michigan-model (Person Environment fit theory) [19], the Demand-Induced Strain Compensation Model [20] and the Effort-Reward Imbalance Model [21].

These models are all based on the balance principle: stress is a result of excessive job demands combined with a shortage of available resources. Job demands are the physical, social or organisational aspects of the job that require effort [22], [23]. Job demands can turn into stressors when employees do not adequately recover from the efforts the job demands require. Resources refer to aspects of the job that: (a) reduce job demands and the required efforts; (b) help to achieve work goals; and (c) stimulate learning and development [24]. Examples of resources are the extent of control workers have over how they do their work (autonomy), the social supportfrom colleagues or supervisors, recognition at work, and the possibilities for personal development and growth.

Job-Demands Resources model

Whereas the aforementioned models focus exclusively on negative aspects of work, stress and strain, the more recent Job-Demands Resources model [25], [26] is complementary to these earlier models; but has a main focus on the positive aspects of wellbeing. The model hypothesises that a proper balance between job demands and resources , may also lead to positive outcomes, such as: work engagement.

Jobdemand2.PNG
Source: [25]

The Job-Demands Resources model postulates that high job demands can lead to work-related stress when resources are lacking (Figure 1, arrow A). For example, when employees are faced with chronic tight deadlines for an extended period of time (high job demands) and they have limited possibilities to plan their work tasks (low resources), work-related stress complaints may occur. On the other hand, resources can buffer the negative effect of high job demands on work-related stress (Figure 1, arrow B). For example, when employees have a lot of work to do, but they have the autonomy to plan their work tasks and have colleagues available to support them, the model hypotheses that work-related stress complaints among employees are less likely to occur (Figure 1, arrow C). This in turn allows employees to get energy from their work and feel engaged.

Effects of resources

Previous studies have consistently shown the positive effect of resources on work engagement [27], [28], [29] [29],[30]. Resources appear to stimulate a motivational process, enabling employees to satisfy their basic needs (e.g., needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness) [30]. According to Halbesleben [31], high levels of autonomy are positively related to work engagement. Also performance feedback [e.g. [27]], social support from colleagues and supervisors [29] [29], [30], organisational climate [31], lack of role ambiguity [32], personal growth [23] and pride in the profession [33] are all found to be positively related to work-engagement.

Effects of work engagement

Theoretically, work engagement is linked to all kinds of positive outcomes for organisations. Engaged workers are full of energy, committed to the organisation and work hard, without developing work-related stress complaints. In this sense, engaged employees are not only productive, but their positive work attitude creates a positive atmosphere at work as well. There is some evidence that this positive atmosphere also positively affects others at work. Engaged workers are satisfied with their work and are less likely to leave their jobs.

Work engagement and organisational outcomes

In the past decade research has focused on these effects of work-engagement. Several studies have found evidence for the positive effects of work-engagement on organisational outcomes (Figure 1, arrow D). Work engagement appears to be related to better performance Psychosocial risks and job performance. For example, high levels of work engagement in flight attendants are related to high performance on the flight (in-role performance) and on extra-role performance. Extra-role performance comprises behaviours that are not required by the job description but have a positive effect on the organisation [15]. Salanova, Agut and Peirò [34] found that the service quality of engaged contact workers from hotels and restaurants was perceived as better by customers. Research by Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Demerouti and Schaufeli [27] found that high levels of work engagement amongst restaurant workers were related to a high financial turnover of the shift. Other studies found a positive relationship between work engagement and employee performance as well [7],[14],[31].

Several studies have focused on the relationship between work-engagement and other organisational outcomes as well. For example, work-engagement appears to be related not only to personal initiative [30], organisational commitment [31], low turnover intention [7],[31], but also to customer satisfaction and loyalty [34].

Work engagement and health

Work engagement is not only linked to organisational outcomes, it is also linked to individual health outcomes. It is thought that engaged workers are full of energy and are less likely to develop work related stress complaints, which can have severe negative impact on workers’ health. Although research on the effects of work engagement on health is relatively scarce, several studies in fact have found evidence for this postulation. For example, high levels of work engagement have been associated to fewer lost work days due to accidents [5], less ill-health [13] and sickness absence [23], and increased general health [31]. Demerouti, Bakker, De Jonge, Janssen and Schaufeli found work engagement to be negatively correlated to headaches, chest pain and other psychosomatic health complaints [35]. Work-engagement has also been observed to relate to wellbeing outside the workplace, such as general life satisfaction [13]. Langelaan, Bakker, Schaufeli, Van Rhenen and Van Doornen [36] studied the relationship between work engagement and burnout on the one hand and two physiological stress symptoms on the other hand, but they did not find any significant results. They conclude that there is convincing evidence for the relationship between work engagement and subjectively reported health. According to them, the relation between work engagement and physiological functioning is less clear.

Enhancing work engagement: implications for organisational policies and practices

According to the theoretical framework of the Job Demands Resources model (Figure 1), enhancing work engagement should focus on increasing the available resources of employees. Increasing resources can be done from two perspectives: the organisational or managerial perspective, or the individual perspective.

Organisational perspective

Resources can be increased from an organisational or managerial perspective. This can be done by: involving employees in the decision making process about their work and organisational processes, providing employees with control and allowing them to influence their work methods and work pace. Other examples include optimising the social support employees receive from colleagues, allowing them to share experiences, provide and share information and confide in colleagues. This could be done by encouraging a work environment that fosters social relationships and social cohesion at work. Social support from supervisors is also an important resource for employees that could be improved by extending the amount of contact and improving communication between worker and supervisor. Another important resource is recognition at work, which could be achieved by providing clear and regular feedback on work performance and functioning, as well as showing that work efforts are acknowledged. A good feedback system is also important for the personal development process of employees, where employees know their strengths and weaknesses and have opportunities to develop themselves throughout their career.

Although there are a lot of theoretical suggestions on how to enhance work engagement, research on interventions to enhance work engagement is relatively scarce. Cifre, Salanova and Rodríguez-Sánchez [37] found evidence for the effectiveness of organisational interventions ( work-stress interventions) to increase resources, reduce job strain and eventually increase work-engagement. However, theory has also suggested other directions for positive interventions towards individual workers and organisations.

Individual perspective

The interventions mentioned above all focus on the role of the manager or organisation to optimize resources of employees, but organisations and managers are not exclusively responsible to provide resources for employees. Employees are able to optimise their resources to a great extent themselves, for example by means of job crafting. Job crafting means that employees adjust, shape and redefine their work to create an optimal fit between their knowledge, skills, competence and needs, and their work tasks and responsibilities [38]. The literature on job crafting distinguishes between three types of changes employees can make in their job: task crafting, relational crafting, and cognitive crafting. Task crafting are changes in the way the work tasks are carried out and in the way the work is conceptualised. Relational crafting is the adjustment in the frequency of contact with colleagues and having a choice with whom employees prefer to work together. Cognitive crafting refers to changing the way employees value their work and give meaning to their work.

Ouweneel and colleagues [39] focused on the role of the individual and used the Broaden and Build theory [40] in their research on the relation between engagement and positive emotions. The Broaden and Build theory assumes that positive emotions momentarily broaden attention and thinking, and, thus, help people discover or build personal resources. Personal resources are believed to increase or maintain wellbeing. Ouweneel and colleagues [39] studied the effect of positive emotions on engagement among students (study engagement). They found that doing something nice for a fellow student yielded positive emotions, which increased the engagement the students experienced. Their study showed that positive emotions, along with self-efficacy, hope and optimism all positively affect engagement. They conclude that focusing on positive emotions could enhance engagement among students. Although this research was aimed at students and study engagement, the mechanism could be similar for work engagement. In addition, research by Ouweneel and colleagues [41] suggest that personal programs to enhance positive emotions among employees could indeed increase work engagement as well. Ways to increase positive emotions include sharing good news, as well as expressing gratitude.

Conclusion

This article described the concept of work-engagement, its antecedents, and its effects. Work engagement is defined as “a positive affective-cognitive state, characterized by vigour, dedication, and absorption”. Engaged workers work hard, are full of energy and are very dedicated to their work. Work-engagement is positively related to different kinds of organisational outcomes; as well as various employee outcomes. For example, work engagement is associated with high performance and engaged employees report better health and life satisfaction. Work engagement is determined by the resources employees have in their work. Resources are aspects of the job that reduce efforts required by job tasks. Resources also help employees to achieve work goals and stimulate learning and development in the job. To enhance the work-engagement of employees, intervention should aim to increase resources or improve access to resources for employees. A positive social climate enhances social support between employees as well as between employees and managers, as well as creating opportunities for professional development. But employees have a responsibility themselves as well. They are able to create resources for themselves, for example by means of job crafting. Employees are able to adjust and reshape their work tasks, social work environment and perceptions about their job to create an optimal fit between the workers’ needs and their work.

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Links for further reading

Attridge, M., ‘Employee work engagement: Best practices for employers’, Research Works: Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2009, 1-12. Available at [1]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Mental health promotion in the workplace – A good practice report, 2011. Available at: [2]