Professor Wilmar Schaufeli, Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at Utrecht University and distinguished Research Professor at KU Leuven, was the latest guest speaker at the Distinguished Lecture series hosted by the  DCU Leadership and Talent Institute and Irish Times Executive Jobs.

Professor Schaufeli addressed the audience of HR, development, training and coaching professionals on the challenge of employee engagement.

The field of employee engagement has been increasing since the 1990s when it emerged as a focus on ‘mental capital’ in the business context. In the 2000s, it gained pace in the field of psychology.  The world of work has changed enormously in western cultures in the past few decades, moving from stability, vertical networks and fixed schedules to continuous change, horizontal networks and higher accountability. As such, new research into workplace satisfaction and employee engagement has evolved as organisations become more aware of engagement as a growing challenge.

Professor Schaufeli’s presentation revealed some important and relevant findings for HR professionals:

  • There is a connection between ‘work addiction’ and burnout. However, there isn’t a strong connection between engagement and burnout, inferring that engaged employees are less at risk of burnout.
  • The European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS) 2015 report listed the Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium as the top European countries in terms of employee engagement. Therefore, high levels of engagement and high GDP correlate, as all three countries have high GDPs
  • Profitability in companies relative to total assets is higher where engagement is high. In short, companies with more engaged employees perform better.
  • The level of engagement is usually higher in SMEs than in large companies due to scale and perceived distance from senior management.

Important factors in employee engagement

Professor Schaufeli’s presentation described the various factors underpinning engagement in the workplace. These include job resources such as social support, team climate, role clarity and recognition. Furthermore, job control, career possibilities, use of skills, adequate tools and participation in decision making are also important to engaged employees. Within the organisation communication, trust and values congruence are particularly important.

How do engaged workers behave?

Engaged workers are proactive, set higher goals and feel competent in achieving them,  are intrinsically motivated and find work enjoyable, are kind and cooperative. Engagement and trust encourage employees to share information and knowledge – key factors in building a culture that enables creativity and both process and product development.

Work is an important part of our life and how we experience it impacts our life outside of work. The prevailing ideologies of how we perceive work were described by Professor Schaufeli as follows, “When you look at work, you can look at it as strain, sacrifice, blood sweat and tears” or alternatively, from the Marxist perspective as “Creativity, product, challenge and development”. With such polar-opposite­­­­­­­­­ attitudes to work potentially at play among individual employees, teams or whole organisations, how can companies best advance engagement?

How to increase engagement

Practices such as coaching, mindfulness, training and career management training have been found to help individuals.  Within teams, caring leadership, team redesign and team level collaborative job crafting have proven effective. Overall within organisations, performance management, quality improvement and leadership development are good practices to implement.


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