Why is employee engagement so low?

'Being able to see how what you do is making an impact and why what you do matters is a critical engagement score'

Why is employee engagement so low?

Less than one-third of employees report they are engaged, enthusiastic and energized by their work, according to a June 2023 Gartner survey of nearly 3500 employees.

Engagement was defined in three ways: employees feeling energized, employees finding purpose in their work and employees feeling empowered to do valuable work.

According to the survey, one of the main issues impacting engagement was employee dissatisfaction with what happens after they provide feedback on their experience about their employer and workplace. Only one-third of employees believed their organization would act on their feedback, while 46% of employees wished their organization did more to address employee feedback.

If employers fail to at least acknowledge employee feedback after employees have spent time and energy relaying their experiences, this will be disengaging, as employees may feel like they haven’t been heard, said Jamie Aitken, VP of HR Transformation at Betterworks.

The low level of engagement reported by the Gartner survey could also come down to if employees don’t see how their role is making an impact or if they cannot see their career path and how they can grow within an organization, Aitken said.

 “Being able to see how what you do is making an impact and why what you do matters is a critical engagement score. So, if you're disengaged, likely it's because you don't have a firm grasp on how what you're doing is moving the needle for the business,” she said.

The importance of employee engagement

The Gartner survey also found that those who report being energized and excited about their work are 31% more likely to stay at their organization, 31% more likely to go above and beyond (discretionary effort), and they contribute 15% more.

As the data suggests, employees who are engaged are more productive, they're less likely to churn, they are more enthusiastic and collaborative, they have greater trust in their company, and they're more focused on what they do, Aitken said.

Not only is employee engagement important when it comes to turnover, but it is also important when it comes to return on investment, said Matthew Burr, HR consultant at Burr Consulting. If an organization has a high turnover, there are additional costs associated with hiring recruiters, purchasing job postings and going through the onboarding process, especially as most individuals are making decisions within 30 to 60 days regarding if they will stay at a company, he said.

“If you're spending all kinds of money on training and six months later, they leave for competition because of a toxic workplace, you're wasting money at that point,” Burr said. “It all comes down to return on investment… Your workforce can be your biggest asset or it can be your biggest liability, and if you have a disengaged workforce, it's a liability at that point.”

Facilitating engagement through management

Checking in with employees once a year through a survey or performance review is not enough to keep employees engaged. While these surveys are important and allow HR professionals to monitor feedback trends, conversations between managers and employees and employees and their peers, as that continuous stream of feedback and connection creates trust and engagement with employees, Aitken said.

“That notion that you can only check in on employees once a year to assess how you’re doing is only the beginning of it; having that continuous conversation throughout the year fosters the kind of trust and connection that truly engages employees,” she said.

According to a Gartner survey of 144 CHROs, the majority reported that managers are responsible for 10 out of 12 actions to engage employees, yet only 19% believed their managers knew how to act on engagement feedback. So, HR must do a better job of supporting managers in both planning to engage employees and executing those plans, the survey said.

HR professionals can support managers by enabling them to have better conversations through guidelines on how to have feedback conversations and how to foster those transparent conversations so that, in a sense, they become stronger coaches, and therefore, employees will respond by being more engaged, Aitken said.

“Managers need to ask on a regular basis: ‘What's getting in your way? How can I help you achieve what you've set out as part of your goals, whether that's a business goal, or whether that's a personal growth or professional growth goal?” she said. “If those kinds of conversations are happening regularly, and I'm not talking twice a year, I'm talking on a quarterly or monthly basis, that helps make managers much more confident and competent, which allows for the engagement, and I think supporting that is where HR plays a role.”

Additionally, discipline and consistency in management and in HR practices are critical for facilitating engagement, as engagement comes from effective communication and forming relationships with employees, Burr said.

“You can't manage by mood swings, and I see that all the time; they have a bad day, they take it out on an employee. I call it mood swing management; you'll never be effective using a model like that; you’ve got to be consistent,” he said.

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