Employees who have good quality jobs and are managed well, will not only be happier, healthier and more fulfilled, but are also more likely to drive productivity, better products or services, and innovation. This mutual gains view of motivation and people management lies at the heart of employee engagement.

This factsheet examines the nature of employee engagement, its relationship to motivation, well-being and other aspects of working life, and how employers can increase it. It provides advice on how to build a motivated, engaged workforce by understanding the principles learnt from research, ways of measuring engagement, harnessing the support of senior leaders and line managers, and making employee engagement efforts organisation-specific.

CIPD viewpoint

The focus on employee engagement in the last decade or so has put good people management practices firmly on organisations’ agendas. It repackages various concepts, in particular motivation and commitment, and emphasises employees’ well-being and performance. As such, it offers a mutual gains view of the employment relationship, seeking both the good of employees and the organisation. To support this, we are the prime sponsor of Engage for Success, the voluntary UK movement promoting employee engagement as a better way to work.

Employee engagement is a relatively new and broad concept, closely related to motivation, which gives a useful focus for people management strategy. However, measurements of employee engagement can be problematic, as they often try to condense too much. Rather than a single score metric, it’s better to use a range of specific relevant metrics as these will be more enlightening and actionable.

Successfully fostering employee engagement and motivation requires working with all areas of the organisation. HR can lead initiatives, but employee engagement needs action from leaders at all levels. Employers should pay attention to:

  • empowering employees to make decisions and shape their jobs
  • effective channels for employee voice
  • fair treatment of employees and support for well-being
  • communications to keep employees informed, and reinforce purpose and vision.

At the CIPD, we use an ongoing ‘pulse’ survey tool which gauges at any time our employees’ views on a number of key factors within the organisation. Responses are anonymised and allow for qualitative and quantitative feedback. The data is analysed and reported to senior leadership and the Board to support initiatives at an operational level.

The idea of employee engagement has become increasingly mainstream in management thinking over the last decade. It builds in particular on the much older concept of work motivation from Herzberg and Maslow, although the more behavioural aspects of employee engagement relate closely to Katz’s organisational citizenship behaviour.

Numerous definitions of employee engagement exist, each with a different emphasis. The first and one of the most enduring is Kahn’s, which focuses on how people interact with their work roles and ‘express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally’.

Building on this, the Utrecht University group of occupational psychologists measures ‘work engagement’ as having three elements:

  • vigour (energy, resilience and effort)
  • dedication (for example, enthusiasm, inspiration and pride)
  • absorption (concentration and being engrossed in one’s work).

The strength of this view is its focus on a specific physical and psychological state of being, meaning that it can be reliably measured and acted upon.

However, other views argue that employee engagement relates to a broader range of factors, for example employees being aware of business context and having a clear line of sight between their job role, and the purpose and objectives of the organisation.

One wider view was developed by the Kingston Business School consortium on employee engagement: the report Creating an engaged workforce identified three dimensions:

  • intellectual engagement – thinking hard about the job and how to do it better
  • affective engagement – feeling positively about doing a good job
  • social engagement – actively taking opportunities to discuss work-related improvements with others at work.

Building on this, our research The locus of engagement considered how employees can be engaged differently with different aspects of their job: the role job itself, relationships with colleagues, the organisation as a whole, and in many cases, people outside the organisation.

So in the broadest terms, employee engagement brings together a range of established concepts, including job satisfaction, motivation, work effort, organisational commitment, shared purpose, energy and ‘flow’. It describes an internal state of being – both physical, mental and emotional – but can also include behaviour, such as commitment and ‘going the extra mile’.

However, narrower, more specific definitions of employee engagement can be more helpful, in particular when it comes to measuring and understanding it in organisational settings (see ‘Measurement’ below).

The engagement levels of British employees

Over the last few years, and in line with other research, our Employee Outlook survey has found employee engagement levels to be broadly stable in the UK. Differences do exist between different aspects of employee engagement, however. For example, using the three core facets of employee engagement identified in our research with Kingston Business School, we found that levels of affective engagement tend to be the highest, followed by intellectual engagement, and social engagement the lowest.

Differences can also exist between groups of workers. For example, in the same research, we found that employees tend to be more engaged is they are women, younger workers, managers and on flexible contracts.

Engagement and well-being

Employee engagement’s relationship with well-being is a critical issue. Our Megatrends: are we working harder than ever? research shows evidence of intensification both as a result of the recent recession and longer-term factors such as rising customer demands and technological change.

Different schools of thought give different perspectives. Views of engagement that that emphasise work effort imply there may be a ‘dark side’ - that if we are ‘too engaged’, we may be headed towards stress and burnout. But notions of engagement based on flow and energy focus on employee well-being over the longer term, and the absence of engagement will undermine well-being. Managing for sustainable employee engagement supports this view and explains how engagement and well-being can be explicitly brought together in people strategy.

Employers want engaged employees because, as well as being happier, healthier and more fulfilled, they are more motivated and deliver improved business performance. Research has repeatedly pointed to a relationship between how people are managed, their attitudes and behaviour, and business performance. Positive relationships are evidenced with profit, revenue growth, customer satisfaction, productivity, innovation, staff retention, efficiency and health and safety performance. There are nuances in the drivers and outcomes of employee engagement, but this basic link holds true across different sectors and job roles.

Conversely, having a disengaged workforce brings huge risks. As well as losses in performance, employers may lose talented people if they feel demotivated or disengaged. They may also face greater difficulties when embedding organisational change if employees are not on board, so wider alignment with strategy and engagement with the organisation is also important. Disengagement may also threaten effective collaboration, innovation and human capital management, as employees are less inclined to use their tacit knowledge and skills for the good of the organisation.

A range of factors can influence employee engagement and motivation, including employee voice, managerial support and self-determination or empowerment.

The MacLeod Review and Engage for Success

The 2009 MacLeod Review was a UK government sponsored review of the benefits and drivers of employee engagement. To help put this into action and increase employee engagement in the UK, an industry-led task force and movement Engage for Success was set up in 2011 to further understanding and embed practices in the area. In January 2017, the CIPD became Engage for Success’ prime sponsor.

Drivers of employee engagement

A great deal can be learnt from existing research on what drives employee engagement. For example, the MacLeod Review summarised four ‘enablers’ that should be fundamentals of any employee engagement strategy:

  • Leadership that gives a ‘strong strategic narrative about the organisation, where it’s come from and where it’s going’.
  • Line managers who motivate, empower and support their employees.
  • Employee voice throughout the organisation, to challenge or reinforce the status quo and involve employees in decision making - read our employee voice factsheet.
  • Organisational integrity’: stated values are embedded into organisational culture; what we say is what we do. This closely relates to the sense of fairness and trust in the organisation and the psychological contract, which depend on employers delivering on their commitments and fulfilling employees’ expectations.

Barriers to employee engagement

It’s important to remember that people management can get in the way of employee engagement as much as drive it. Employers should be careful not to assume that employees are inherently demotivated and the solution is for management to inspire and lead them in an engaging way. It can equally be the case that employees are naturally motivated and only demotivated by factors such as a lack of support, poor line management or frustrating HR systems. To know what the barriers and drivers are, employers should listen to employees and give them effective channels for voice.

Alignment and buy-in to employee engagement strategies

Successful employee engagement strategies will build on good people management and learning and development practices. They should be holistic, not only focusing on employees work engagement and well-being, but also helping employees see clear links between their work and the organisation’s purpose, vision and values.

Strategies should also be multipronged, aligning communications, HR policies and systems, learning and development and cross-organisational events. As such, they require the active buy-in and support of senior leaders and line managers throughout the organisation. Affinity Health at Work’s report Developing managers for engagement and well-being, sponsored by the CIPD and others, reviews the evidence on what affects the success of developing managers who support employee engagement, health and well-being, and includes new tools and resources.

A minority of employees may not want to be engaged, so recruitment practices and performance management are important tools. However, an engaged workforce cannot simply be hired. It needs good people management strategy and practices, for which there is no shortcut.

Organisational context

What drives employee engagement varies to some extent depending on the context. What motivates or demotivates people, and the challenges and opportunities in fostering employee engagement, can be shaped by many factors, including individual differences (for example, personality), organisational culture, management structures and leadership.

A first practical step in fostering employee engagement is to assess – and in large organisations, preferably measure – employee attitudes.

Gathering employees’ views

Many large employers in both private and public sectors conduct regular employee attitude surveys, often alongside focus groups or other forums to gain employee insight. The benefit of a survey approach is that employers can get a representative view from employees across the organisation. The benefit of qualitative methods, such as focus groups, is to hear the true voice of employees and get a richer, less constrained understanding than from pre-set questions and options.

While surveys are still a mainstay, some organisations have started to move to what are considered more engaging methods. In particular, using social media platforms potentially marks a major shift from the traditional survey approach, because employees interact with each other as well as management. This means they can read and comment on their colleagues’ opinions in real time and before senior management or HR have digested them. It also makes gathering employee insight a more active process, closely linking it to collaboration. Read our report on Social media and employee voice.

Measuring employee engagement

In survey approaches, many employers and consultants develop composite employee engagement measures from a number of different questions. ‘Engagement scores’ from these are typically used to identify how different parts of the organisation compare, how employee engagement is changing over time and which factors relate to higher or lower engagement.

A danger in this approach is that of oversimplification. Because of the multi-faceted nature of employee engagement, it is easy to develop ‘potpourri’ measurements that bundle together a number of distinct factors into an arguably unhelpful single metric. This is a major criticism of employee engagement, as it can result in a situation in which there is ‘much ado about nothing’; a lot of debate and figures about employee engagement but no clarity on what it actually is. We discuss this in our collection of thought pieces: The future of engagement

Human capital metrics can be invaluable, but they need to be reliable and give data that is clear and specific enough to be actionable. A single index of the proportion of employees classed as ‘engaged’ or ‘disengaged’ may be too vague to be of help, but more precise assessments of the levels of motivation, ‘work engagement’, shared purpose or trust in leaders, for example, are likely to be very useful.

Books and reports

BRIDGER, E. (2018) Employee engagement: a practical introduction. 2nd ed. HR Fundamentals. London: CIPD and Kogan Page.

HOLBECHE, L. and MATTHEWS, G. (2012) Engaged: unleashing your organization's potential through employee engagement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

TAYLOR, M. (2017) Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices.

Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.

Journal articles

ALBRECHT, S.L., BAKKER, A.B. and GRUMAN, J.A. (2015) Employee engagement, human resource management practices and competitive advantage: an integrated approach. Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance. Vol 2, No 1. pp7-35.

BAILEY, C, MADDEN, A., ALFES, K. and FLETCHER, L. (2017) The meaning, antecedents and outcomes of employee engagement: a narrative synthesis. International Journal of Management Reviews. Vol 19, No 1, pp31-53.

GUEST, D.E. (2014) Employee engagement: a sceptical analysis. Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance. Vol 1, No 2, pp141-156.

MEYER, J.P. (2017) Has engagement had its day: what’s next and does it matter? Organizational Dynamics. Vol 46, No 2, pp87-95.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Jonny Gifford with contributions from Ramya Yarlagadda.

Jonny Gifford

Jonny Gifford: Senior Adviser for Organisational Behaviour

Jonny is the CIPD’s Senior Adviser for Organisational Behaviour. He has had a varied career in researching employment and people management issues, working at the Institute for Employment Studies and Roffey Park Institute before joining the CIPD in 2012. A central focus in his work is applying behavioural science insights to core aspects of people management. Recently he has led programmes of work doing this in the areas of recruitment, reward and performance management. 

Jonny is also committed to helping HR practitioners make better use of evidence to make better decisions. He runs the CIPD Applied Research Conference, which exists to strengthen links between academic research and HR practice. 

Ramya Yarlagadda

Ramya Yarlagadda: Research Adviser

Ramya joined the CIPD in 2016 as a Research Adviser. Her interests are in the areas of equality, diversity and inclusion, employee voice and leadership behaviours. She has published research investigating the links between diversity and inclusion and employee voice, purposeful leadership behaviours and voice. She is currently investigating the intersectionality of human-technology interaction and how it could deliver best possible outcomes for people, organizations, societies and economies. She is also managing a project looking at factors influencing workplace inequalities.

Ramya has a Master’s degree in Management and HR from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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