Jobs are a shared human experience – almost every adult has one, and feels a certain way about it. This opinion can range from total dissatisfaction with the workplace to feeling deeply connected to one’s work. The latter is of course ideal, but how does the average employee get to this point?
Engagement, Well-being and Authenticity
A big factor in that equation is engagement; an employee is engaged if they can freely employ and express their preferred self in different task behaviors . There are many layers to this short sentence – for example, the definition seems closely related to well-being. Well-being is similar to health, but just because someone is physically healthy, does not mean that their well-being is high. It is dependent on many different things, which is why most scientists let their respondents enter their perceptions regarding the meaning of the word, so-called subjective well-being .
In this definition of engagement, there is a specific type of well-being at work: eudaimonic well-being. This term is derived from ancient Greek times, as Aristotle coined the term, who also is responsible for the philosophy behind it. Eudaimonia can only be roughly translated, as good spirit or happiness. Do not confuse this well-being with hedonic well-being. This hedonic type is more focused on achieving a life with the most pleasure and the least pain, whereas eudaimonia is about living life well and meaningfully as an end in itself, rather than using it as a mean .
There is another important concept mentioned in the definition of engagement: authenticity. To be precise, one’s preferred self describes the alignment process between a person’s actions and who they understand themselves to be. There are different views on the misalignment between the two. Some scientists argue that not being consistent in behavior shows a lack of authenticity others see those very differences as essential to authenticity .
But what exactly is engagement good for? In many fields studied by scientists, engagement is usually a desirable outcome: Social, cultural and community engagement has been linked to positive consequences for mental health , and students’ well-being is also positively influenced. For example, one study looked at the emotional and mental engagement of students , while another study was concerned with political engagement specifically – both find an overall positive impact of engagement .
Workplace Engagement and Stress
As everyone trying to reach a deadline or handling responsibilities can likely confirm, work can be a source of stress . Stress has many negative health outcomes, both mental and physical, the latter being particularly common in a work environment . Work-related stress can even carry over into other areas of life , which demonstrates how interconnected the different roles and settings of everyday life are.
However, the effects of stress can differ depending on the person: women experience more stress than men, young adults and elders more than middle-aged people, unmarried people more than married, and parents more than childless people, at least if they experience any other kinds of strains . Another factor is the socio-economic status: people with a lower class, socially or financially, tend to have worse outcomes. This group is alienated by their work, meaning that they do not have much influence on the goods they are making and feel disconnected and because of that, have higher mortality rates. They also experience more stress, anxiety over their current status, and a lack of control over their life more so than their higher-ups are. Feelings of powerlessness can increase distress, for example in unpaid work relations and if family members are dependent on the worker as a breadwinner, which in turn leads to a decrease in trust, creating a downward spiral of negative effects . Everyone who worked a minimum wage job in the past can likely attest to this imbalance in power and well-being.
The obvious link between work and stress begs the question whether engaging in such a stressful environment is in fact beneficial, especially when taking into account those that are already disadvantaged in the workplace.
The Benefits of Engagement
Workplace engagement has many well-studied benefits, but most of them are only relevant to the employer. Engagement has been called a key element of organizational success by researchers; it increases the return of assets, profitability, customer satisfaction and decreases employee turnover . Therefore, it is in the best interest of employers to keep engagement high, regardless of its impact on employees. Before picking up the pitchforks and going on strike though, let us first look at the relationship between engagement and the well-being of employees. There are quite a few advantages for the engaged employee, such as better attitudes towards their job and increased safety, which both increase well-being . To understand this relationship, a concept mentioned earlier comes into play: authenticity.
There is a direct relation between authenticity and well-being, simply put, the more authentic an employee is, the better they are doing in terms of well-being, in and outside of work. There are many other positive effects of authenticity, both for employers and employees alike, such as increased job performance, satisfaction, commitment, self-esteem, social support, and lower turnover as well as decreased anxiety and narcissism levels . Some of these outcomes are very similar to the consequences of workplace engagement, and that is not a coincidence.
All three concepts are very closely related: many studies found that authenticity impacts both engagement and well-being positively, and while we just talked about how authenticity and well-being are related, there is sometimes even overlap between the concepts, depending on the definition. Some studies even measure well-being in terms of how authentic an employee is, though being authentic at the workplace can lead to conflict, which could potentially decrease well-being . But no matter how you define authenticity and well-being, it is clear that employee engagement is not just benefitting their employer, but also the workers themselves.
It might seem like the positive effects of workplace engagement are contradicted by the amounts of stress experienced by workers, but stress might not only have negative outcomes. Recent studies have also looked at the positive effects of stress since it can be a tool to learn from negative experiences and develop problem-solving skills . Just because something might produce a bad feeling short-term, does not mean that there is no potential for long-term improvements. Imagine going through a painful breakup: you might not feel like you have accomplished anything good in the first few weeks after a breakup, question your decisions, and feel terrible. Only later, you might realize that it was a good decision to leave the relationship, as you recognize toxic patterns over time or get to know yourself better by going through this stressful experience.
Engagement: Good for everyone?
Now that we know that engagement is desirable for both employers and employees, there is one final question to discuss: Is this true for everyone? We just learned earlier that stress can take vastly different shapes and sizes for different kinds of people, and you might assume that engagement differs depending on these factors we mentioned for stress. Interestingly, this is not the case: authenticity and well-being are not influenced by gender or age. This implies that engagement is not either. Despite there being less studies on authenticity, this claim is supported by other studies directly examining engagement .It is on us to change that!
To truly understand engagement and improve working conditions, researchers and stakeholders alike need to work together, to create a new generation of engaging workplaces; after all, we know it is worth the effort way beyond the job itself.
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