2 The magazine of the Employee Assistance
Employee Engagement and EAPs
Creating a Meaningful Workplace
“Managers must be trained to alter their style from one centered on policing employees,
to a more positive coaching approach.”
By Chester J. Taranowski, Ph.D., CEAP
What actually motivates an employee to operate at peak levels of performance?
Traditionally, this question has focused on salary and benefits. However, an employee’s
intrinsic interest in one’s work and the personal meaning that he or she derives from the
job are also motivating factors that lead an individual to perform at a high level.
Researchers call this enhanced motivation, “engagement.” In other words, an employ--
ee’s personal experience of engagement is a work--related, positive state of mind
that reflects his/her passion and commitment to the job. Engaged employees work
proactively, they expand their thinking as the job requires, and they actively find ways
to increase their skills. They perceive that their own self interest is aligned with organi--
zational goals. Consequently, they demonstrate resilience, adapt well to change, and are
less likely to leave the job than an unengaged employee. However, engaged employ--
ees are not workaholics! They enjoy activities outside of their jobs, and unlike
workaholics, they do not suffer from a compulsive attitude toward work. Instead, they
find their tasks interesting and energizing. Moreover, levels of engagement exist not only
within employees, but also across organizations. Put another way, engagement can be
influenced both by characteristics of an individual employee and by conditions within the
workplace. It is the behaviors of managers that best reveal these organizational
Research on engagement is a work-in-progress and not free of controversy. One of the
fundamental debates surrounds the many technical definitions of engagement. Some
emphasize the inner psychological state of the employee, while others focus on the
workplace conditions believed to influence engagement. This controversy has led to a
multitude of methods for measuring work performance, creating a lack of uniformity in
research. Schaufeli and Baker (2010) suggest that engagement is characterized by
three internal psychological factors:
Vigor is described as a high level of energy and mental resilience. Dedication refers to
a sense of meaning, inspiration, and positive challenge from one’s labor. With high
absorption, the employee becomes engrossed in their work to the degree that time
appears to pass very quickly. Salanova, Schaufeli, Xanthopoulou, and Bakker
(2010), suggested that engagement lies at one end of a continuum of employee
motivation. Full engagement anchors the positive side of work related emotion, while
burnout describes negative engagement. Burnout is characterized by exhaustion,
cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy on the job (Maslach & Jackson, 1996). Still other
authors have suggested that burnout is an occupational hazard of a highly engaged
employee. Since they demonstrate great personal investment in their jobs – without
appropriate management support and ample resources to perform their tasks – the
engaged are likely to overextend to the point of exhaustion (e.g. Dewa, Thompson &
Worldwide research has linked the level of worker engagement with company success.
Gallup (Wagner & Harter, 2006) found that companies with high engagement saw:
Reduced employee turnover;
Increased customer satisfaction;
Greater employee productivity; and
Enhanced company profits.
Pugh and Dietz (2008) suggest that companies with a better work environment,
including greater opportunities for career growth, and a culture of support and open--
ness, outperformed organizations that faired poorly in these areas. There are many
other studies linking engagement to productivity. The Department for Business,
Innovation and Skills (UK) published a paper extolling the virtues of engagement. The
document includes a review of the linkage literature. (MacLeod & Clarke 2009). Attridge
(2009) also produced an excellent review with a focus on EAPs.
Variables that Facilitate Engagement
As mentioned earlier, certain personal characteristics identify individuals likely to demon-
strate a high level of engagement. Managers and executives, for instance, usually have
greater levels of engagement. Employees who are highly educated are also typically
more engaged, but they often show greater loyalty to their profession than to the
organization they work for. Generally speaking, engaged workers experience
better health, a higher state of well--being, and positive social relationships both within
and outside of work. Because these characteristics correlate with productivity, some
consultants advocate work--based programs to directly address subjective well--being
and other quality of life interventions, independent of direct association with the
Organizational conditions that correlate with worker enthusiasm are termed, “drivers of
engagement.” Gallup conducted probably the most familiar research in this area.
The factors associated with engagement are reflected in an employee’s agreement with
statements similar to the following: “I am doing something I am good at;” “I have all the
things I need to do my job;” “I know exactly what I should be doing;” “Every week some-
one notices something positive about my work;” “People care about me at work;” “I have
a mentor at work;” “People listen to my opinions;” “I understand how my job is related to
the company’s goals;” “I receive respectful feedback at work;” and, “My job offers me
opportunities for advancement” (Wagner & Harter, 2006).
To facilitate engagement, more effort should be expended by organizations to create a
meaningful work experience. This includes redesigning jobs to reduce high strain (i.e.
demanding tasks with little discretion over how to perform them). This doesn’t suggest
that work should be any less challenging or that employees are not held accountable.
Rather, it means that jobs should have variety and permit a worker as much autonomy,
creativity, and discretion as possible. A sense of justice, fairness, and freedom from
harassment are other fundamental requirements of engagement. The presence of
maltreatment or workplace bullies significantly suppresses engagement. Trust,
fairness, and respect are not luxuries for companies, but are universal requirements for
In addition, the “people skills” of supervisors remain probably the single most important
influence on workplace engagement. Managers must be trained to alter their style
from one centered on policing employees, to a more positive coaching approach. While
these lofty recommendations for management skills and a positive organizational culture
are seldom met, research clearly demonstrates that workplaces that strive to attain these
goals are likely to be successful.
Consulting aimed at improving engagement should often begin with an assessment of
an organization’s current working conditions. This is often accomplished through work--
place surveys designed to identify drivers of employee productivity and satisfaction.
Although engagement surveys evolved from employee satisfaction analysis, the two
assessments are not synonymous. Engagement surveys are intended both to identify
drivers that might be unique to a particular group and also to assess the presence – or
absence – of workplace conditions identified as applicable to any workplace.
Large consulting firms periodically announce estimates of engagement as indicators for
national and international levels of worker enthusiasm. Typical estimates reveal that only
1/4 to 1/3 of the workforce is highly engaged. Therefore, research suggests that the
potential resource of employee motivation and passion is largely wasted.
Several standardized measures of engagement have been developed. These
instruments can be used either to ascertain individual levels of engagement, or by
aggregating data, they may make estimates about engagement across an entire
The Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (Schaufeli & Bakker, 2003) includes
subscales for the assessment of vigor, absorption and dedication.
The Shirom--Melamed Measure of Vigor within the Workplace is also available at
the following link: (http://www.tau.ac.il/~ashirom/research.htm).
The most wildly used measure for burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory, by
Maslach and Jackson (1996).
The Chestnut Outcome Suite is designed as a comprehensive measure of EAP
performance and contains a subscale on engagement (Lennoxa, Sharara, Schmitzb,
& Goehnerc, 2010) (www.chestnutglobalpartners.org/ResearchTools/Tools/
Regardless of whether an organizational evaluation is conducted quantitatively or
qualitatively, consultants can provide programs to address obstacles to motivation.
These trainings usually begin with leadership. In most American organizations
supervisors have little formal training in managing people and no training in job design.
Administrators must first understand the basic components of an engaging workplace,
including helping workers build self efficacy and creating an environment of social
“Transformational” management is an emphasis in today’s business classes. This
perspective underscores the importance of developing a supervisor’s leadership skill. In
other words, the most effective leaders motivate by offering both a challenging
workplace where employees are encouraged to grow their skills, and yet still
require worker accountability. To achieve these outcomes, transformational leaders must
model a positive vision for their group, demonstrate realistic optimism, and engage
in authentic communication. These changes require a significant shift from what has
been considered sufficient management skill. However, in most organizations, training
resources for this psychologically enlightened style of supervision are seldom available.
Interventions with Individuals
Two interventions have been demonstrated to improve the line--worker’s personal level
of engagement: the careful identification of employee strengths; and “job crafting.”
Assessing a worker’s talents, and then matching these skills to appropriate tasks
may enhance both employee productivity and well--being. Several psychometric
ments for the identification of strengths have been developed. The most famous is the
Strengths Finder (Buckingham & Clifton 2001), but other instruments are available
(The VIA at www.authentichappiness.com and Realise2, at www.cappeu.com).
Although testing may be used to identify skills, even simple conversations with
employees, examining work history or probing for job preferences may suffice.
Job crafting builds on strength identification (Berg, Dutton & Wrzesniewski, 2008). Most
job descriptions present an array of assignments that may leave considerable latitude for
employees to select tasks or choose the methods that produce results. Once an
employee is able to identify his/her talents, job crafting allows them to emphasize
the activities in which they are most likely to be successful. Yet again, few workplace
resources are available to assist either managers or individual employees in creating
more meaningful work experiences, be it through strength identification, job crafting, or
any other process.
Engagement and EAPs
In today’s lean organizations, few opportunities exist for the training and management
support necessary to transform the workplace. Consequently, by either supporting
existing engagement initiatives or helping to begin initiatives such as the ones
described in this article, EAPs can position themselves at the center of efforts to
increase the quality of an employee’s work life. Particularly in smaller organizations,
EAPs may be the only resource for supervisor coaching. Unfortunately, EAP
management consultants are typically professionally trained therapists who may lack
business experience. For that reason, the engagement literature may help these
specialists understand the components of a productive and meaningful work experience
and also offer an overarching structure by which management interventions can be
recommended. Unique opportunities may also exist for EAPs to help individual workers
achieve a more meaningful occupational life. Today, few employees would feel safe
discussing disengagement with supervisors. However, through confidential individual
consultations designed to identify strengths and opportunities, EAPs can improve both
individual employee well--being and the engagement levels of an entire organization.
Chester J. Taranowski is the Employee Assistance Manager with Aon Corporation in Chicago, Illinois.
Attridge, M. 2009. Measuring and Managing Employee Work Engagement: A Review of the Research and Business
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Berg, J. M. Dutton, J. E. & Wrzesniewski, A. 2008. What is Job Crafting and Why Does It Matter? Ann Arbor: The Center
for Positive Organizational Scholarship, University of Michigan, Ross School of Business.
Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D. 2001.Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press.
Dewa, C.S. Thompson, A.H., & Jacobs, P. 2011. Relationships between Job Stress and Worker Perceived
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Medicine, 2(1): 37--46.
Lennoxa, R. Sharara, D. Schmitzb, E. & Goehnerc, D. 2010. Development and Validation of the Chestnut Global
Partners Workplace Outcome Suite. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health. 25(2): 107 – 131.
MacLeod D. & Clarke N. 2009. Engaging for Success: Enhancing performance through employee engagement.
London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Available at www.bis.gov.uk.
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Research. Eds. A. B. Bakker & M. P. Leiter. New York: Psychology Press.
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