Employee engagement versus employee wellbeing

Wellbeing specialist Dr Bridget Juniper reveals why employers should shift their focus from engagement to wellbeing when investigating efforts to improve workplace performance.

This series on employee wellbeing explores how the concept is gaining support in the workplace. This article focuses on the basis for employee engagement and finds that it omits critical health-related factors from the equation.

The subject of employee engagement is continuing to attract increasing levels of boardroom attention, which is powerful for HR professionals tasked with enhancing workforce performance. While the subject has been around for decades, the topic has received a boost from David MacLeod and Nita Clarke’s 2009 employee engagement report to government.

The findings and subsequent recommendations in the 152-page report are sound as far as they go. However, emerging research suggests that organisations that focus only on those areas associated with conventional engagement indicators, such as commitment and effort, are missing the point where enhancing performance is the overriding goal.

The reason for this is that the scope given to workforce engagement is just too restrictive. The ubiquitous questionnaires that are deployed to evaluate engagement levels generally only tap into those areas that are conventionally linked to performance. MacLeod is unashamedly direct on this point, highlighting how engagement impacts positively on competitiveness and profitability.

Engage to succeed

As a consequence, these types of surveys only provide, at best, half of the answers as to how output can be practically improved. The remainder lies with the wellbeing of employees, which links directly to both HR and occupational health professionals.

As MacLeod notes, definitions for what is meant by employee engagement are varied and numerous. For example, HR consultant Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson) claims that engagement refers to the “extent to which employees put discretionary effort into their work”.

While there are subtle differences, it is fair to generalise that all explanations reference workplace characteristics that support the organisation’s goals and business success.

Understandably, this is important for employers that have recruited and invested in people to support their ambitions. However, the question that this approach fails to tackle is: how important are these behaviours to the people themselves? The answer to this is not much. This must inevitably lead us to question how sustainable these behaviours are if they are not important to the workforce. The answer, again, is not much.

Optimising potential

Focusing on employee wellbeing brings a fresh perspective to the perennial question of how to optimise workforce potential by addressing what is most important to employees. By doing so it fills in critical holes in the corporate knowledge base to help inform strategy and programme choice.

Employee wellbeing can be defined as “that part of an employee’s overall wellbeing that they perceive to be determined primarily by work and can be influenced by workplace interventions”. In common parlance, this can be roughly translated as happiness at work and denotes the importance of employees’ own subjective opinions. This puts the individual’s experience of their work firmly at the centre of things, resulting in a much broader range of potential areas for improvement than those traditionally associated with employee engagement.

It is much more likely to promote the honest dialogue between employers and their workforces that MacLeod and others espouse so strongly.

Asking the right questions

Engagement surveys fail to cover critical areas of the work experience that provide vital clues to poor performance. By way of example, a national, 24/7 contact-centre operation employing more than 2,800 agents was losing £12 million per annum in attrition (34%) and absence (18%) levels.

quotemarksEngagement surveys fail to cover critical areas of the work experience that provide vital clues to poor performance.”

Needing to take radical action, senior management decided to look at the organisation through the lens of the employees and their wellbeing. Dimensions such as how the roster system affected home life and how work affected physical health were identified. Central issues relating to social isolation during a shift and workplace facilities provided were also uncovered.

All of these aspects were shown to have a strong link with attendance and retention problems, although none featured in the annual engagement survey.

This in-depth listening may not be for the faint-hearted but, for those who do opt for this route, there are enormous benefits to be reaped. Businesses that truly listen to what employees consider to be important about their jobs, and how this affects their general wellbeing, are rewarded with a much richer basis on which to make improvements that are more likely to be effective and sustainable.

In the interest of employees

As testament to this, the top 10 drivers of employee engagement, identified by Towers Watson – ISR, show that, of 75 possible areas, the one that was rated the most important was the extent to which employees believed that their senior management had a sincere interest in their wellbeing.

The research goes on to ask employees whether or not they think their senior management actually exhibit this behaviour, with only 39% believing this to be the case. By contrast, the second driver relates to employee development, which is more often associated with conventional engagement measures.

Added to this is research by occupational psychologists Robertson Cooper in 2009, which shows that the link to productivity doubles when a measure of engagement is combined with a measure of employee wellbeing. This demonstrates that employee wellbeing adds significantly to performance outcomes.

Rooting for wellbeing

So this is the theory. How does this translate into practice?

The notion of employee wellbeing is taking root. Prime Minister David Cameron is championing a general wellbeing index to help inform policy, while leading lights such as Professor Dame Carol Black and Dr Steve Boorman have published encouraging government-initiated reports on wellbeing in the workplace, where the breadth of wellbeing and its importance in predicting behaviours and outcome is emphasised.

Increasing numbers of organisations are beginning to look at employee wellbeing as a strategic advantage. However, there is a real opportunity for HR and OH experts to work alongside engagement colleagues to truly explore what it is about people’s work that really influences how they choose to perform and the effort they are prepared to expend on behalf of their employer. They will be rewarded with a wealth of evidence that will inform better decisions that will be more effective in the long run. This will benefit the organisations through enhanced performance and, critically, it will also pay dividends to the employees themselves.

Dr Bridget Juniper is head of Work and Well-Being Ltd, which specialises in the measurement of employee wellbeing. She has conducted award-winning research on employee wellbeing at Cranfield University and publishes regularly in scholarly journals and frequently presents to academic and corporate audiences.


MacLeod D, Clark N (2009). “Engaging for success: enhancing performance through employee engagement”.

Robertson IT, Cooper CL (2009). “Full engagement: the integration of employee engagement and psychological well-being”. Lancaster University Management School.

XpertHR provides a model policy to help set out a company’s commitment to managing staff health and wellbeing.

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