Do interventions to improve work engagement really work?

Work engagement has been theorised since Kahn 1990 as a concept that describes the physical, cognitive and emotional involvement employees have in their roles.[1] Early research highlighted that work engagement involves an employee’s sense of meaning, their psychological safety with work (incl. trust) and availability of internal resources/capacity to do work. It is a concept much refined over 30 years and has become a lever of performance often cited by people professionals.

Various models have been proposed since 1990 to describe work engagement and its outcomes. The systematic literature review and meta-analysis Building work engagement: A systematic review and meta-analysis investigating the effectiveness of work engagement interventions by Caroline Knight, Malcolm Patterson and Jeremy Dawson (2016)[2] looked to review the literature and explores if interventions designed to improve work engagement actually work.

The research looked to answer two critical questions about work engagement interventions:

  • Are work engagement interventions effective?
  • Doe the impact size differ according to the type of intervention chosen?

Work engagement: is there a clear definition?

To understand the impact of different interventions the paper first reviews the literature to define the concept of work engagement.  A highly cited model for work engagement is that of Schaufeli et al (2002) who developed the Job Demands-Resources model (JD-R). This model proposes that work engagement is driven by either or both personal resources: positive self-evaluations that are linked to resilience, self-control, and view of individual impact (e.g. self-esteem and optimism) and job resources: the physical, social or organisational aspects of the job (e.g. feedback, personal development).[3] The authors highlight how important this model is and recognise it is a foundation concept in the field.

However, this is by no means the only definition of work engagement. In fact, the literature review highlights that there are very many, sometimes opposing definitions of work engagement: some scholars argue that work engagement is a redundant concept against more established concepts such as job satisfaction, or organisational commitment. Others contest that engagement and burnout (stress-related) are similar concepts which are highly correlated and therefore may be the same concept. It is clear from the literature review that these is no unified view of work engagement, however the JD-R is a well-researched and established model. This is further highlighted in the analysis of work engagement interventions

What are work engagement interventions?

The literature review and meta-analysis enabled the authors to define four types of interventions:

  • Personal Resource building interventions: these focus on increasing individuals’ self-perceived positive attributes and strengths, often by developing self-efficacy, resilience or optimism.
  • Job Resource building interventions: these focus on increasing resources in the work environment, such as autonomy, social support and feedback, which are predicted to lead to work-engagement, well-being and performance.
  • Leadership training interventions: these interventions build knowledge and skills, such as through workshops for managers and measure work engagement in their direct employees. Results are mixed, and highlight the ‘potential importance of context, and tailoring interventions to individual circumstances and organisational needs.’
  • Health promoting interventions: these interventions encourage employees to adopt and sustain healthier lifestyles and reduce and manage stress

Do work engagement interventions work?

The results of the meta-analysis showed interventions have a positive, small, significant, effect on work engagement. The data appears to show that interventions designed to improve work environment resources and well-being can improve work engagement. This finding was observed across settings, industries, participant characteristics and countries, suggesting the outcome is sufficiently generalisable.

Does intervention type have an impact?

There was no significant effect observed between the different types of interventions, suggesting that success is not affected by the type of intervention selected. The authors suggest this might be due to indirect effects e.g. an intervention designed to directly increase personal resources could increase an individual’s sense of self-esteem, competence and experience of positive emotions, meaning they also seek out opportunities that increase their job-resources and well-being. It also may be that there is considerable difference between the interventions studied, meaning meaningful comparison and generalisation is difficult.

Both leadership training and health promoting interventions have demonstrated mixed results with regards to work engagement; some show minor effects, others show no effect.

Does the style of intervention have an impact? (e.g. one-to-one or group)

The analysis suggests that intervention style may be a more important than intervention type, but more studies are needed to understand and explain why this is the case. The findings seem to suggest that group interventions which enable conversations between colleagues, the development of personal relations and work skills, and improve voice, foster the development of job resources such as social support and influence in decision-making. These then lead to positive outcomes.

Do interventions create long-term impact on measured outcomes?

The sustainability of the impact of interventions was ambiguous, highlighting there is not enough evidence to suggest interventions lead to long-term improvements in outcome measures.

Practice recommendations:

  1. Group interventions may be more effective: although there is a lack of good quality evidence, group interventions may be more effective than individual interventions. Practitioners should try out these interventions in their work
  2. Focus on work engagement outcomes and measure success: using valid measures of success and fully evaluating interventions will help to improve our understanding of how engagement interventions work. Practitioners should ensure they are measuring and evaluating the impact of interventions with robust evaluations.

Conclusions

The meta-analysis found that interventions to increase work engagement in organisations have been shown to be effective, and that intervention style appears to be an important consideration when designing interventions. The analysis also appears to show other moderating factors are influencing outcomes but given the significant difference between interventions it is difficult to generalise results. There is however much evidence to show that work engagement is an important concept that can be influenced by HR interventions. However, not enough is known about how intervention type impacts outcomes, and which interventions are most effective.

Finally, the study supports the view that detailed evaluations of work engagement interventions are needed, and should be published, to further our understanding of how work engagements work in practice.

[1] Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. The Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), 692–724.

[2] Knight, C., Patterson, M. and Dawson, J., 2017. Building work engagement: A systematic review and meta‚Äźanalysis investigating the effectiveness of work engagement interventions. Journal of Organizational Behavior38(6), pp.792-812.

[3] Schaufeli, W. B., Salanova, M., Gonzalez-Roma, V., & Bakker, A. B. (2002). The measurement of engagement and burnout: A two sample confirmatory factor analytic approach. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 71–92.

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