What Is Employee Engagement? More Than Making Employees Happy.

If you read the Society for Human Resource Management’s most recent report on the subject, you might have the impression that all is well with employee engagement in the United States. The report states that about 86% of employees are satisfied at their jobs.

But Gallup’s report presents a more dismal picture—only about 31% of employees are engaged at work.

These two findings might look contradictory, but the message is clear: happy employees are not necessarily engaged employees.

So what is employee engagement, and what does it look like? Engaged employees are committed to success—not just their own, but that of the company.

And engagement doesn’t always equal job satisfaction. Happy employees might be perfectly content to keep things the way they are—particularly their pay and security—without feeling driven or passionate about the company’s larger mission.

Engaged employees, on the other hand, are often the least happy in the company when it comes to the status quo. They’re always pushing for improvement.

The SHRM report backs this up with specific data about what engages employees and what makes them happy at work. According to the report, the factors are different. Those with the greatest impact on baseline happiness at work include:

  • Respectful treatment of every employee
  • Trust between senior management and employees
  • The company’s benefit package
  • Compensation
  • Job security

By contrast, the list of stand-out factors that contribute to employee engagement includes:

  • The employee’s relationships with co-workers
  • The contribution of their work to the company’s overall goals
  • Their sense of meaning in the job
  • Opportunities to use their skills and abilities
  • The employee’s relationship with immediate supervisors

There’s definite crossover in these two lists. And common sense says it’s hard to engage employees when their pay is too low and benefits are shoddy. But even so, the data shows that it’s work culture, relationships, and empowerment that really drive engagement—not financial concerns.

So which would you rather have for your company—employee satisfaction or engagement? Ideally, both. But the Gallup 2012 Q12 survey shows that companies with engaged employees do better across a broad spectrum of outcomes, including:

  • Profitability
  • Employee productivity
  • Employee retention
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Workplace safety
  • Product quality

It also linked high levels of engagement to stability in a downturn—so in the next big recession, the companies with engaged, dedicated teams will come out fastest and strongest.

Even better, Gallup also reports that engaged employees are healthier—and employers pay less for their healthcare. That’s good news in a climate of rising healthcare costs.

Happiness at work is also tied to better productivity and profitability. But studies show that the payoff for an engaged workforce can be even more significant.  Even so, while many employers measure and track employee satisfaction at work, drilling down to measure engagement is still a new concept.

Still, if you want an accurate picture of how healthy your company’s relationship with its workforce really is, it’s crucial to measure not just job satisfaction, but engagement—and track what’s working for your business.

Boosting employee engagement takes more than competitive pay and benefits. It involves building a corporate culture that encourages engagement on a variety of levels. What that culture will look like on the ground—and the programs and strategies it involves—will be different from company to company. But the focus on satisfaction as a contributor to engagement, rather than an end goal in itself, will be crucial.

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George Elfond
George Elfond