Forget Engagement - Focus On Wellbeing

Gather the troops, distribute the questionnaires, save the results and repeat. Year in, year out we go through the same tiresome process when it comes to assessing employee engagement. In theory, there is no great issue with following a tried and tested routine like that surrounding the annual engagement survey, however in practice it simply doesn’t work.

Since the 1970s, businesses around the world have been measuring the engagement levels of those in their employment in a bid to enhance morale and in turn boost productivity. But figures from the recent past show that less than a quarter of Australian workers actually feel engaged in their employment, with the 16% who are considered to be actively disengaged stripping the economy of an estimated $54.8 billion per annum.

While various commentators have noted that tracking engagement on a yearly basis just isn’t enough to instigate change, others have suggested that our ongoing obsession with engagement is preventing us from recognising the elements which are really responsible for this striking trend of employee dissatisfaction. Writing for Forbes.com, Josh Bersin of Bersin by Deloitte, argued that it’s time to look beyond engagement towards a more holistic means of driving employee commitment. “I would suggest that using the word “engagement” often limits our thinking,” he noted. “It assumes that our job is to reach out and “engage” people, rather than to build an organisation that is exciting, fulfilling, meaningful and fun.”

Echoing Bersin, Jacob Morgan of the Harvard Business Review proposed that by investing in the employee experience and creating a company culture which makes people want to come to work, forward-thinking employers can overcome some of the issues traditionally associated with disengagement. Given that the next generation of job-seekers value similar qualities in its employers to those of the consumer brands it follows, it makes sense that millennial workers seek out organisations which allow them to become immersed in an overall mission. With their on-demand approach to work and life, these employees are more flexible than their predecessors, but they also expect more from the employer in terms of providing continuous learning opportunities, stimulation and praise. This means the employer requires a heightened understanding of their staff, something which existing engagement surveys consistently fail to produce.

Because the staff satisfaction reviews which are currently in circulation tend to fixate on the organisation rather than the employees which make it up, they limit the extent to which workers can express their opinions and initiate change. By providing a set of predetermined responses to an already restrictive set of questions, we strip employees of their power. Instead of being able to contribute to the advancement of the companies for which they work, they are forced to contain their ideas to those which have already been outlined by those in charge.

In contrast to the ideal, completing an engagement survey does not feel like an opportunity for self-expression. It comes across as a tick-the-box activity which will never materialise into anything more than a self-congratulatory blurb on the careers page of an organisation’s website. Annual engagement surveys generate false and limiting results because, rather ironically, they ignore the individual tasked with their completion and in doing so eliminate any potential for engagement.

By discounting the employee, these questionnaires have a tendency to ignore the complex relationship which has come to exist between our professional and personal worlds. Since the arrival of the internet, the barriers which once stood starkly between the office and the home have disintegrated, leaving employees exposed to the pressures of work in their former sanctuaries. Each day workplaces across the country fill with more than groups of employees, they gather collectives of people – humans who are whole and therefore bring more to the office than the basic ability to complete the tasks they are assigned. Your colleagues are connected to families, tied to health issues and motivated by personal goals and fears, therefore the greatest challenge is not to engage them in their work, but to support them in developing and maintaining an overall sense of wellbeing.

Conducting more targeted pulse surveys in real-time can help establish a steady flow of dialogue between employees and organisational heads. Since wellbeing effects both engagement and productivity, such feedback sessions should centre on the topics which matter to modern employees like mental health, the cultivation of happiness and growth opportunities. In this way employers can identify genuine production barriers and implement procedures which will allow employees to realise their potential.

It is time to recognise the people who give life to your company and ask them “how can we help you get more from your career?”. This is not some millennial concept designed to keep generation snowflake comfortable, but a way for businesses the world over to make use of the minds they have hired, creating spaces which allow each employee to thrive and utilise their talents for the betterment of their lives and the organisations with whom they work.