Tips to Create Sustainable Engagement

Leave it to a time of economic uncertainty for organizations to become enamored with the topic of employee engagement. Business is bad — or not what it should, or could, be — which means employee morale, thus engagement, is low.

In fact, according to a recent study by professional services firm Towers Watson, roughly 63 percent of U.S. employees are not fully engaged in their work and are struggling to cope with an environment that doesn’t provide sufficient support.

To Julie Gebauer, a managing director with the firm, the problem is that workers are simply burnt out. For firms to promote higher levels of engagement, Gebauer said, more time and effort should be spent creating an environment that enables engagement on a stronger level. To do this, talent management should focus on two primary ingredients of so-called sustainable engagement — enablement and energy.

Part of the reason employees are burnt out is that they’re spending a lot of time fending off obstacles that get in the way of sustainable engagement.

To enable engagement means to give employees the tools, resources and support so they can get their work done efficiently, Gebauer said. A lack of sufficient technology or an unsupportive manager can both act as obstacles.

The second — and perhaps most important — piece to driving sustainable engagement is energy.

Gebauer said energy, among other things, comes from employees feeling a sense of accomplishment in their work. This doesn’t mean managers should simply put emphasis on rewards and recognition. It’s much broader than that.

Managing work-life balance, health and wellness, and culture are all areas that Gebauer said have the potential to energize employees and promote more sustainable engagement. In the Towers Watson study, a little more than half of the respondents said they don’t feel their organization makes it possible for them to have a healthy balance between work and personal life.

Many workers, however — even those who are successful at work — are still likely to be struggling in other aspects of their life, said Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and well-being at consulting firm Gallup. In turn, managers should aim to not just manage the employee, but what Harter calls the whole person.

Gallup, through its research, has identified five areas that managers should look at to boost energy and promote sustainable engagement.

Career well-being. Are people really able to use their strengths in the job they’re in? This is when employees are in a role where they really enjoy the projects and work that they do.

Social well-being. This refers to the level to which an employee feels able to connect with other people — both in and outside of the office — in a way that’s personally fulfilling. Flextime and other office policies can help in this area.

Financial well-being. Are personal finances a daily worry? If finances cause daily stress, it can have an effect on an employee’s level of engagement and, in turn, productivity, Harter said. Many organizations are equipped — through education and other general support — to help employees in this area.

Physical well-being. Harter said a culture of wellness in an organization not only promotes good employee health but it mitigates stress and increases energy. Most firms should be able to provide employees with resources that promote an active and healthy lifestyle. This doesn’t require every employee to become a gym rat, however — nor does it mean the organization has to provide employees with the resources to do so.

Community well-being. “At a basic level, it’s about involvement in the areas where [employees] live,” Harter said. This could mean helping sponsor programs that help employees participate in community service or providing resources that educate them on local causes in the communities within which they live.

Both Harter and Gebauer agreed that front-line managers are paramount in promoting sustainable engagement. Talent managers and senior leaders can put these principles in place, but it’s really the day-to-day actions of each individual manager that makes all the difference in providing an environment that supports sustainable engagement.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Talent Management. He can be reached at