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.

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. It also draws on other established concepts, including job satisfaction, work effort, shared purpose, energy and ‘flow’.

Numerous definitions of employee engagement exist. 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’. This describes an internal state of being but one which relates closely to behaviour, such as discretionary effort or ‘going the extra mile’.

A narrower view is that of the Utrecht University group of occupational psychologists which defines ‘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).

This focus on a more specific physical and psychological state of being means that work engagement can be reliably measured and clearly acted upon. This can be used alongside other specific measurements for constructs such as organisational commitment.

However, an argument for the wider focus of employee engagement is that it encompasses other important factors, such as 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.

A broad understanding of employee engagement gives a useful basis for a holistic people strategy, but can run into trouble when it comes to measurement. Narrower, more specific definitions are more helpful when it comes to understanding, measuring and actioning employee engagement and motivation (see ‘Measurement’ below).

The engagement levels of British employees

Our survey of employees about job quality, UK Working Lives, shows that in 2018, about two-thirds of workers are satisfied with their jobs overall (18% ‘very satisfied’ and 46% ‘satisfied’), while just 18% were dissatisfied. Drawing on our previous survey work, we see that UK job satisfaction fluctuated over the previous decade, dropping in particular in 2010 and 2011 to a low of just over half, but the broadly positive picture remained stable. The same proportion as those who are dissatisfied (about one fifth) say that they are likely to quit their job in the next year.

At a day-to-day level, the UK Working Lives survey shows a more muted but still positive picture positive. Just over half of workers ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel enthusiastic about their jobs and a similar proportion say they are willing to work harder than necessary to help their employer or clients.

Our data shows no difference in enthusiasm for our jobs between men and women, but we do see greater enthusiasm among senior managers and the highest paid, workers with postgraduate levels of qualifications and voluntary sector workers. Self-rated discretionary effort is greatest among managerial and professional employees, lower among junior administrative roles and lowest in manual and casual work. Across broad sectors, voluntary sector workers report putting in most effort

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 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. Our report Managing for sustainable employee engagement supports this view and explains how engagement and well-being can be explicitly brought together in people strategy.

As well as being happier, healthier and more fulfilled, engaged employees are generally more motivated and more likely to 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. Explore this more in our podcast, The engagement myth, which examines the connection between productivity and engagement.

It’s important to note that the great majority of this research shows correlation but not causation. In other words, employees may feel more engaged because they work in more successful teams or organisations, rather than the other way round (they perform better because they are engaged). However, there is some research that does show causal relationships, for example between short-term happiness and performance.

What is perhaps clearer is that having a workforce that is disengaged or demotivated brings huge risks. As well as losses in performance – for example through discretionary effort and collaboration – employers may lose talented people and struggle to embed organisational change.

Gathering employees’ views

The barriers and drivers of employee engagement often vary depending on context. As such it is important that employers give employees effective channels for voice and listen carefully to their concerns and aspirations.

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. A mixed approach is best as different methods have different strengths. Qualitative methods such as focus groups provide a rich understanding of employee experiences in their own words. On the other hand, employee surveys give a representative view of experiences across the organisation.

Some organisations have developed what are considered more engaging methods, in particular using social media platforms as a channel for employee voice. These allow employees to interact with each other at the same time as with management, giving a more collaborative approach than a straightforward survey. However, there is still a place for more in-depth conversations and for more robust surveys

Measuring employee engagement

The adage that ‘what gets measured gets attention’ is as important for employee engagement as other areas of management. Measurement is also necessary 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.

Many employers and consultants have developed composite measures from a number of different survey questions to give an overall engagement score. This can oversimplify matters dramatically. 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 unhelpful single metric. 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. Recognising that employee engagement is a wide-ranging multifaceted area, more precise assessments of its composite parts – motivation, ‘work engagement’, shared purpose or trust in leaders, for example – are likely to be most useful./p>

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 and barriers to employee engagement

The MacLeod Review summarised four fundamental ‘enablers’ of employee engagement:

  • 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.

Our UK Working Lives survey shows that, apart from health and well-being, which is closely related to employee engagement, the factor that is most consistently related to job satisfaction, enthusiasm, effort and intention to quit is social support and cohesion. This includes the quality of relationships people have with colleagues in general but in particular the quality of people management. We also see other relationships, for example that job complexity – that is, how stimulating, interesting and novel one’s work is – is most closely related to enthusiasm and effort; and that the terms of employment – for example, job security and development opportunities – is most closely related to overall job satisfaction and intention to quit.

It’s important to remember that people management and HR systems can get in the way of employee engagement as much as drive it. Employers should be careful not to assume that workers are inherently demotivated and the solution is for management to lead and direct them in an inspiring way. Equally or even more so, employees are naturally motivated to do a good job and become demotivated when they feel overworked, unsupported or frustrated.

Employee engagement strategies

Successful employee engagement strategies will make use of a range of good people management and learning and development practices. They should be holistic, for example by focusing on employee motivation and well-being, and also helping employees understand their contribution to the organisation’s purpose, objectives and culture.

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

Our report Developing managers for engagement and well-being, conducted by Affinity Health at Work, reviews the evidence on what affects the success of developing managers who support employee engagement, health and well-being. This includes a maturity model and other new tools for developing managers and organisations for sustainable employee engagement.

Despite the obviously central role of managers and HR practices, some employees will naturally be more engaged than others and person-job fit will also heavily influence engagement. As such recruitment practices and performance management are also important tools for building an engaged motivated workforce.

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.

McGEE, R. and RENNIE, A. (2011) Employee engagement. CIPD Toolkit. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

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.

GYTON, G. (2017) How to move beyond the rhetoric on employee engagement. People Management (online). 31 January.

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.

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. 

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