The standard narrative surrounding employee engagement has long been “the more, the better.” And while this has typically been true in the past, in recent years we’ve seen a different correlation emerge between engagement and employee well-being.
Due to the uncertainty and hardships caused by COVID, many expected employee engagement to nosedive during the pandemic, but the opposite happened. Instead, we saw a new type of employee burnout emerge, which seemed to rise as engagement rose. Employee engagement reached a new high of 40% (and 41% for remote workers) during June and July of 2020; meanwhile, employee well-being plummeted.
Researchers speculate that engagement and well-being diverged in opposite directions because employee motivation during the pandemic was fear-based, driven by uncertainty and stress rather than genuine purpose and incentivization. Though the engagement spike may have been a fluke, it started a new conversation about employee engagement and how it correlates with well-being and burnout.
Companies tend to focus on elements like engagement, productivity, and growth with great enthusiasm, as they all tend to reinforce each other. However, none of these are sustainable without employee well-being. For growth to be sustainable, it has to be built upon a solid foundation: a healthy workforce.
The Wellbeing-Engagement Paradox
What we’ve learned in recent years is that when it comes to employee engagement and well-being, the two don’t always correlate. If we think of employee engagement as a scale from “not engaged” to “extremely engaged,” both ends of the spectrum are actually at high risk of burnout.
For example, “purpose-driven” professions are very connected to the organization’s mission and are often highly engaged, but these professions’ dedication to their jobs also puts them at high risk of burnout.
Additionally, societal and cultural influence and the fear of economic insecurity can also drive engagement at the expense of employee well-being. Hyper-competitive work cultures, lack of social support, and fear of losing one’s job often work together to make employees feel that they must sacrifice their well-being to succeed.
A recent study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence found that of 1,000 U.S. employees surveyed, 2 out of 5 reported high engagement and low burnout, resulting in positive outcomes. On the other hand, the data also showed that 1 in 5 employees is highly engaged and at risk of burnout. Though the latter were passionate about their work, they reported negative outcomes such as stress and frustration. These employees also had the highest turnover rates of all the employees surveyed.
This means that companies are at risk of losing some of their most motivated and hardworking employees, and may not even see it coming. So how can this be avoided?
Optimizing Engagement: How Managers Can Help Employees Avoid Burnout
Employee engagement is still a relatively new concept. In the past, employers were only focused on employee satisfaction, which hinged on monetary rewards like salary and bonuses. Eventually, employers expanded on this by making the workplace more enjoyable and boosting company morale and camaraderie.
Most recently, employers have focused on the need for career development by offering abundant training and learning and development programs. In addition, companies have tried to boost employees' sense of purpose by giving back to the community through charitable and volunteer programs. Yet, despite these efforts, employee engagement remains a mystery. So what else can employers do?
Measure Employee Well-being
The first step is to stop focusing only on engagement and start measuring employee well-being in tandem. While engagement surveys are now commonplace at work, continuous engagement should factor in conversations about well-being and include periodic employee burnout surveys to keep burnout levels under control.
Balance Demands and Resources
Though attempts to boost engagement through monetary incentives, company culture, and career development are helpful, what can help employees most is simple - balance demands and resources. Offer plenty of resources such as support from supervisors and rewards and recognition programs to increase self-efficacy by giving them what they need to do their job well and feel good about it.
In addition to increasing resources, reduce demands to ensure employee workloads are manageable. Make sure that employees are not wasting time and energy on unnecessary tasks, meetings, or bureaucracy. Of employees surveyed, a combination of high resources and low to moderate demands yielded the most optimally engaged employees (64%).
Of course, some jobs are high-demand by nature. When it comes to employees in high-demand, high-stress positions, HR and management must be extra attentive to their needs. Employers need to fully understand the demands placed on employees and adjust their level of available resources accordingly.
Employees with high-demand work require a higher level of resources such as support, acknowledgment, and recovery. Are you curious about how to motivate an overwhelmed employee when demands are high? The answer is to increase recognition.
Digital Tools to Optimize Engagement
There are many digital tools available that can help employers better manage demand, provide resources, and measure employee well-being to avoid stress and burnout in the workplace.
For example, survey tools can be used to create periodic surveys focused specifically on employee well-being. Gathering this information helps employers measure employee well-being in tandem with engagement, giving HR a clearer view of workforce trends that can lead to burnout.
Communication platforms are also essential for connecting employees to colleagues and supervisors to ensure they have the support needed to meet high demands; this is especially important for frontline employees who may face high demand while being disconnected from supervisors.
Wellness platforms and rewards and recognition programs are also available to provide support for well-being and ensure employees are recognized for their hard work.
An employee tracking app like Insightful or similar monitoring software can provide valuable insight that can make avoiding job burnout easier. Designed with the core purpose of monitoring remote workforces, tools like Insightful can be used to keep a finger on the pulse of your entire organization.
With insight into employee time and attendance, workflows, performance and productivity, and activity tracking, employers are provided actionable insights that can help restore the balance between demand and resources.