85% of Employees Worldwide Are Not Engaged-How Can HR Make an Impact?

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Worldwide, employees are so lacking in connection to their work, the word “engagement” has almost become background noise. It’s time we began to talk more specifically about what it means-like when we treat people like machines, they lose connection with what they do. Process over people is always going to create risk that people will lose hope that their work will have meaning. It happens to us as HR professionals too-if we are in a box that requires we address problems as policy and process issues, instead of considering the human side of what happens at work, we have the potential to become disenchanted and disconnected as well. It’s not surprising, then, to hear that according to Gallup, 85% of employees worldwide are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their work.

I’ve been reading Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace Executive Summary this weekend, and according to the report, the business case for engagement is clear:

Business units in the top quartile of Gallup’s global employee engagement database are: 17% more productive than those in the bottom quartile AND 21% more profitable than those in the bottom quartile.

Looking at engagement worldwide, Gallup identified something interesting about economically developed employee populations. This tendency to emphasize process over people does have a negative impact on engagement. However, when Gallup reviewed data on Western European employee engagement, they discovered something interesting (if sad):

Only 10% of employed Western Europeans are engaged at work; by comparison, the figure among U.S. employees is more than three times as high at 33%.  

East Asia's engagement came even lower, at 6%. So as low as U.S. employee engagement is, when we consider that the nature of work in economically developed nations creates challenges for us in the type of work that must be performed, and the way it must be managed in order to maximize productivity, it’s worth identifying what is keeping U.S. worker engagement at a higher level than Western Europe. In Gallup’s analysis, it’s performance management practices that recognize the human need for psychological engagement, like relationships, recognition, ongoing coaching and feedback, and opportunities for development. Less hierarchical arrangements that allow people to choose roles that play to their strengths also increases engagement, as does the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

We are doing some things right in the U.S., and it doesn’t escape notice that the professionals who drive design, implementation and ongoing management of these performance systems are in HR. It’s clear that we in human resources can impact employee engagement through identifying ways to feed employees’ need for meaning, growth and opportunity. In some ways, this is the key to our own engagement in HR. If we know that reorienting the way we address performance management and development has the potential to directly impact engagement, and we can show that engagement creates productivity and profitability, then we have the tools we need at hand to drive change in our organizations.

The question when considering any decision should always be, “what is the most meaningful option for our employees?” To some extent, this can depend on the culture of our organization and the things our employees uniquely value. We can find out by asking questions, and then genuinely listening, and responding in ways that align with the company’s values and employees’ human needs.

The key to engagement? We’re not machines. We perform at our best when we find joy, excitement and meaning in the work we do. Everything we do in HR should be oriented toward this end, for ourselves, and for employees.

Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Foter.com / CC BY