Engagement along with energy and a sense of accomplishment are the three factors that can make the difference between flourishing at work and burning out. This week, let’s hone in on engagement. This article is aimed to help you understand what engagement really looks like, how to harness an optimal level of engagement, and why it is important for your success and well-being.
What is Engagement?
Engagement is how employees express themselves through their work on a cognitive, emotional, and physical level. When workers are optimally engaged in their work, they are more productive. Think about a time when you got into a state of flow. You were so immersed in what you were doing, that the time passed by very quickly. This is what engagement can be like. Because when we are engaged in such a way we are less distracted, we tend to get more done.
But engagement does not always translate into better work or personal outcomes. In fact, stress plays a big part in the end result. So what leads engaged workers to become so stressed that their performance is eroded?
According to Christine Maslach, a primary researcher on the subject of burnout, when employees are overly-engaged, it may be a sign that they are stressed out. Consider Ed who works intensely all day. He stares at his work screen and tries as hard as he can to get the work done before nightfall. But the demands of his job are so great that he feels buried by his responsibilities. In an attempt to lessen the load for tomorrow, he stays late at work and even though he gets home late, continues to work from home.
On the surface, we can say that Ed is highly engaged in his work. Is he a workaholic? Not necessarily, at least if what is meant by that term is someone who doesn’t want to get away from their work. Ed might just feel so overwhelmed with the amount of work he has to get done that he can’t step away from it. To an outsider, it may seem that he is obsessed with his job. Despite his intense focus, energy, and time invested into work, Ed would love to have more personal time. His engagement is by necessity and the stress is what is leading him to burn out.
What we know about burnout is that it is a result of chronic stress over time. So what happens if Ed’s circumstances don’t change? He can go from being overly-engaged to disengaged. Disengagement is a sign of burnout.
When we are disengaged, even work that at first seemed meaningful can feel unfulfilling. The stress of the work leads us to feeling irritable and impatient. When we burn out, our energy is depleted, we become exhausted, our engagement turns into cynicism, and we become ineffective.
So far, we’ve said that optimally engaged workers are more productive. When the demands of work are very high, workers can become overly-engaged. And if this continues for extended periods of time, the same workers can become disengaged. What, then, does it take for you to be optimally engaged rather than overly-engaged?
The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence conducted a survey of over 1,000 U.S. employees. In the write up, the researchers shone a light on two different groups of engaged workers.
The first group consisted of Optimally-Engaged workers. Individuals in this group were able to remain engaged even in the face of stress due to three factors:
Their job provided them with resources. As a result, they felt supported, appreciated, and acknowledged.
They had high self-efficacy. That is, they believed in their ability to do their work well.
The demands of their job were low. Unlike Ed, workers whose job demands are low have an opportunity to recover from stress and therefore do not get as easily overwhelmed by their work.
The second group was referred to as Engaged-Exhausted. Despite the engagement in their work, stress had stripped away this group’s energy, leaving them depleted due to the high demands of the job. Even when the latter group was provided with resources such as support from a supervisor, rewards, and recognition, the demands placed on them led them to a tipping point that negatively affected their ability to sustain their productivity. Interestingly, research has shown that these employees are more likely to leave their job than even the disengaged group.
In 2016, a Gallup poll found that seventy per cent of U.S. workers feel disengaged. Clearly, the workplace is getting it wrong to have such a profoundly negative impact on employees. Now that we know what makes the difference between engaged and disengaged and furthermore, the difference between optimally engaged and engaged but exhausted, how can we harness more optimal engagement?
Becoming Optimally Engaged
The consulting firm, Towers Watson, conducted a study in 2012, which looked at 32,000 employees in 29 markets worldwide: Based on their data, the recommendations to increase engagement in the workplace were two-fold: (1) Employers should provide support, resources, and tools; and (2) Work environments should be “energizing” to create positive, rather than negative, stress.
Support can come in several forms. Part of the reason why support leads to greater engagement is because it sends a message that the company for which you work cares about your well-being. One basic premise in demonstrating this principle is keeping stress levels down and encouraging work-life balance. To achieve this, companies may need to increase staff size and allow workers more flexibility in terms of work arrangements.
Much has been written about support in the workplace. When it comes to social support such as informal mentoring, findings point to insignificant results that do little to protect workers from burnout. However, when formal mentorship is provided, so long as there is a good fit between the mentor and the mentee, the relationship can act as a buffer for stress. Mentoring reduces fatigue, increases confidence, and thereby improves self-efficacy, a primary factor for engagement.
What makes mentoring so effective? Let’s refer back to Ed. Perhaps one of the reasons Ed is Overly-Engaged or Engaged-Exhausted is because he feels alone in his pursuit of his work. He may be focused on tasks that are outside his scope which therefore take him longer to complete. If Ed were provided mentorship by his company, his mentor might help him better understand where his strengths and weaknesses lie and how to align his tasks accordingly. Rather than feel like his identity is merged with his work, he would focus on his skillset and new opportunities that might be open to him.
Ed’s mentor may have important connections to experts that can help Ed hone in on certain skills he is looking to master. By having a number of role models, Ed can feel like the work he is doing is meaningful, not only for his company, but for his professional development.
Through mentoring, when Ed feels overwhelmed by stress, his mentor might help him use different and more effective coping mechanisms. By learning how to adapt to challenging situations and by feeling like he has a sounding board in his mentor, Ed can start to let the support he is receiving lift up his mood, his energy, and his focus, and help him engage with his work even in the face of stress.
Resources and Tools
Communication and clarity are essential in order for the company goals to be understood and achieved by the employees of that company. Workers need to clearly understand what is being asked of them, what they need to do in order to achieve the goal, and how their part contributes to the big picture of the company’s vision.
Work expectations should be in line with employees’ skill level. That said, employees remain more engaged when they know they are on a clear career path, are being coached on how to continually improve their skills and performance, and have a respectful and trusting relationship with their supervisor.
To ensure workers can meet the company goals more efficiently and effectively over time, companies can invest in programs that tackle common skill-related deficiencies such as time management and Emotional Intelligence. The benefits of this are two-fold. Companies get better results and can sustain their workers longer while employees attain personal and professional growth on the job and are less negatively affected by stress.
When it comes to company culture, it is important to have effective communication and implementation strategies that tackle conflicts when they arise, that focus on providing a safe and nurturing environment, and that bring team members together. Christine Porath, Associate Professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, found that when you feel respected at work, your focus and engagement go up. She encourages companies to have more friendly work environments including amongst coworkers and says this can be achieved by “thanking people, sharing credit, listening attentively, humbly asking questions, acknowledging others, and smiling.”
In addition to professional resources such as training, coaching, or mentoring, a focus on personal resources can benefit workers’ engagement. We know that mindset plays a big part in mitigating stress. As such, focusing on cultivating optimism, hope, self-efficacy, and resilience can help workers feel confident to take on challenges, persevere, and bounce back. These four personal resources have been found to work well together and form what is known as “psychological capital,” a powerful framework of “self-beliefs about control over one’s work environment.”
In short, when companies communicate clearly about goals, have expectations in line with workers’ skill level, foster professional growth through trainings, create a culture of respect, and help their employees cultivate psychological capital by focusing on personal resources, they will promote optimal engagement in their staff.
Energizing Environments and Habits
How can companies instill more energy into the work environment? According to Towers Watson, companies should focus on creating lively discussions that bring the team together. Even when part of the team is off-site, the group can create visuals by working on their project with an online whiteboard. Beyond these specifics, the company culture speaks for itself. When companies promote breaks, laughter, and creativity, energy levels stay strong.
You can also contribute to your personal energy level. When you focus on energizing yourself throughout the day, you can set yourself up for greater success. Start your morning off strong with a few minutes to check in with yourself through meditation or journaling, stretch out and exercise your body, and think through the day ahead and what you need to focus on to be most effective. During your commute, practice mindfulness or spend time reading or listening to a book to help improve your skills.
When you arrive at your desk, organize your space, create a task list for the day, and eliminate distractions to maintain your concentration. Throughout the workday, take short breaks to stretch, hydrate, and refresh your mind. When you feel a decrease in energy, avoid sugar and caffeine and instead substitute deep breathing, a brisk walk outdoors, or listen to a motivating guided meditation or upbeat music. Eat nourishing foods for lunch and avoid simple carbs that can zap your energy and lead you to slowing down. Remember, the goal is to stay on task so you can leave without delay.
On the way home, disconnect from work. Listen to something that relaxes you or check in with a friend or a loved one. Connecting to others can help you transition your mind off work and into your personal life. Similarly, when you arrive at home, create a ritual that allows you to turn off your work-related concerns. It helps if you have an event scheduled such as an evening class or social plans as this forces you to do something other than work. That said, avoid over-scheduling. You will need some alone time.
Before bed, rinse the day away with a cleansing shower or soak in a warm bath to relax. Engage in screen-free activities such as reading, journaling, stretching, or listening to music. Be mindful of the time and ensure you get to bed early so you can get your eight hours of shut eye.
The Importance of Engagement
So far, we’ve defined what engagement and disengagement look like and how to cultivate optimal engagement. But why focus on engagement in the first place?
We’ve already mentioned that engagement leads to greater performance. From the company’s point of view, it is obvious why they would want optimally engaged workers. But what’s in it for you?
If you are a high achiever, you know that job performance affects your self-esteem and, more importantly, your self-efficacy. What’s the difference between these concepts? Self-esteem may fluctuate from moment to moment depending on the outcome. When you experience a success, your self-esteem rises, but when you’re faced with a failure at work, your self-esteem may plummet. Self-efficacy is how you feel about being able to do your work. Do you believe in your ability? The stronger your self-efficacy, the more adaptive your coping and the more resilient you will be. Just like confidence, self-efficacy builds with experience over time.
In the book Psychology of Burnout: Predictors and Coping Mechanisms, author Rachel V. Schwartzhoffer talks about the relationship of engagement to that of experiencing joy. “The pursuit of a good life is the pursuit of happiness that broadly includes hedonic features as well as fulfillment and contentment, and distinguishes pleasure, meaning, and engagement as three orientations to happiness. When you are high on all three orientation, you are living a ‘full life’ versus an ‘empty life’ low on all three.”
This is in line with the PERMA model. According to Martin Seligman, the promoter of Positive Psychology, engagement is one of five necessary ingredients for happiness. In addition to positive emotion (P), relationships (R), meaning (M), and accomplishments (A), engagement is when we enter a state of flow. Effortless involvement happens when we are focused on activities of moderate difficulty.
So not only does engagement lead to productivity which can increase your self-efficacy, it is one of the key ingredients necessary to derive happiness in life. And chances are, the happier your work makes you feel, the more engaged in it you will be.
Optimal work conditions lead to optimal engagement. Conditions such as high resources, high self-efficacy, and low to moderate demands can help workers sustain their work flow, attention, and concentration while effectively managing their stress.
To feel engaged, your values and those of the company for which you work must be aligned. Balance, flexibility, and autonomy are the top three values employees seek in their work to feel engaged. Engagement is not just key for burnout prevention. It is one of the essential elements that leads to happiness.
If you are feeling overly-engaged or even disengaged at work, harness the tools, resources, and wellness related habits that can help you feel energized physically as well as the psychological capital that can lead you to feeling more in control.