'Why am I here?' The real employee engagement question HR needs to be asking

New book by thought leader Jennifer Moss explains why employers are still failing at employee engagement

'Why am I here?' The real employee engagement question HR needs to be asking

Employee engagement trends and catchphrases are ever on the rise, yet talent retention is a challenge that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Even with all the data available that points to increased employee connection as the answer to quiet-quitting and disengaged employees, employers still struggle to hire and hold on to talent.

With a new upcoming book, award-winning author and speaker on workplace psychology Jennifer Moss is working on filling in that knowledge gap and helping HR leaders with strategies to solve the disengagement problem.

A major problem, Moss told HRD, is that employees have not yet had a chance to heal from the shared existential threat of the global pandemic.

“Leaders are sort of looking to move on,” she said. “There's been some great things that have happened – flexibility and remote work and more conversations around mental health in the workplace, destigmatizing burnout … huge investments made in mental health and wellbeing, but we're still feeling like they're not being actualized at work.”

Employee dis-engagement on the rise: research

According to Gallup research, employee engagement in the states is on the decline again after increasing before the pandemic – numbers are at their lowest since 2013, especially for younger employees and women.

In employees aged 35 and younger, active disengagement increased by four points, and three points for women, who reported feeling less cared about at work, having less progress discussions and less likelihood of there being someone at work who encourages their development. This disengagement has resulted in “The Great Breakup” phenomenon, Moss explained, where more and more women at the executive level are leaving their jobs – deciding it’s not worth it.

The statistics are similar in Canada, Moss said.

“Fundamentally, employees are going ‘why am I here? Life's too short,” she said. “If we don't realize that people are constantly asking themselves, why am I here? What is the point? If we don't give them the point, then they'll leave or quit or quiet-quit, remain disengaged.”

Redesigning diversity for increased employee engagement

Moss’s new book focuses on five specific leadership strategies to help employees and HR address this question of ‘Why am I here?’: hope, belonging, meaning and purpose, compassionate adoption of technology, and redesigning diversity.

Moss explained that while organizations are making progress in addressing diversity issues, there are still major gaps in engagement, including with disabled employees. For example, the idea of going ‘above and beyond’ being a valued and rewarded quality in employees can leave disabled workers who aren’t able to reach that level of performance falling short unfairly.

“That should not be a badge of honor. We need to define what ‘above and beyond’ looks like,” Moss said. “If above and beyond is you working 70 hours a week, and that's what I expect, then let's be explicit about that.”

Most organizations tend to “play to the middle” by advancing employees who fit the formula of traditionally high-performing behaviours while ignoring employees who don’t, Moss said, and this failure to recognize disabled employees is not good for business, either.

“We’re not looking to the edges, where there's really special things that are superpowers of people who are neurodivergent – there's the coolest superpowers, and we're just not taking advantage of that in a way that's going to make us better.”

Workplace happiness is not a luxury anymore, it’s a demand

Moss’s new book is the answer to the questions her first two books – on burnout and workplace happiness – raised; it’s been identified that burnout and workplace happiness are crucial elements of an engaged workforce, and the data gives the evidence. But employers still lag behind in implementing what’s been learned since the pandemic.

Citing current MIT Sloan School of Management research that revealed that happiness and health at work are deciding factors for employees making crucial decisions such as whether or not to work at or stay at an organization, Moss’s book explains that employers and HR need to address this issue or risk losing valuable talent.

“The book really is to help leaders understand that there are these very fundamental important pro-social traits that we need to be adopting within our cultures, to move the needle and to give employees time to heal,” Moss said.

“I've had so many people say to me, ‘how can we get better, we've never had time to heal, we've never had time to recover, it’s always business as usual. It's always about GDP. It's always about productivity and doing more with less, and we've never just had the leader pause and say: ‘you're probably still hurting, and how can I help that?’”

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