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Most U.S. Workers Not Fully Engaged, Struggling to Cope with Tough Workplace Situations

July 11, 2012 — As doubts re-emerge about the strength of the economic recovery in the United States, almost two-thirds (63%) of U.S. workers are not fully engaged in their work and are struggling to cope with work situations that don’t provide sufficient support, according to a "Global Workforce Study" by Towers Watson.

This finding suggests employees are finding it difficult to sustain the kind of positive connection to their companies that yields consistent productivity — the result of almost a decade of pressure to do more with less and respond to challenges of global competition, ever-evolving technology and the ongoing need for strict cost management.

"When workers are not fully engaged, it leads to greater performance risk for employers. It makes companies more vulnerable to lower productivity, higher inefficiency, weaker customer service, and greater rates of absenteeism and turnover," said Julie Gebauer, managing director, talent and rewards at Towers Watson. "Without attention and interventions aimed at improving on-the-job support for employees and creating a sense of attachment to the organization, this trend could worsen — and directly affect business outcomes. Companies have known for years that employee engagement is important to business performance. We're now seeing — in part because of the tough business climate — that engagement is quite fragile and will not be sustained over time without careful attention to very specific elements in the work environment."

The study breaks new ground in understanding and measuring what contributed to sustained employee engagement in the workplace, and demonstrates the strength of the relationship between "sustainable engagement" and specific financial outcomes for employers.

"Sustainable engagement is an important evolution in the science of workforce behavior — and it's an approach well suited to the unique aspects of the current work environment," said WorldatWork member Laura Sejen, global practice leader, rewards, Towers Watson. "It recognizes that employees need support from their employer to continue to give discretionary effort on the job, and right now, employees are telling us they're not getting that support in the way and at a level they need."

This is an important wake-up call for U.S. companies if they want to sustain growth, Sejen said. "When we looked at sustainable engagement scores among 50 global companies in a related piece of research and examined their one-year operating margins, we saw dramatic evidence of the impact of sustainable engagement on performance," she said. "The companies with high sustainable engagement had operating margins almost three times those of organizations with a largely disengaged workforce. That fact alone creates a compelling case for change."

Sustainable engagement starts with basic engagement, defined as employees' willingness to expand discretionary effort on their job. It also requires enablement — having the tools, resources and support to do their job effectively, as well as energy through a work environment that actively supports employees' well-being.

"Enablement and energy are critical factors in this equation," Gebauer said. "In the past several years, when we've seen much more pressure in the system, their importance has risen to the fore. Engagement will only hold over time with these elements in place."

The study uses a specific set of questions to measure and classify respondents as to their level of sustainable engagement. Overall, the study showed that:

  • Just 37% of U.S. workers are highly engaged in a sustainable way, meaning they scored high on all three elements of sustainable engagement.
  • Just over one-quarter (27%) are classified as unsupported, meaning they display traditional engagement, but lack the enablement and/or energy required for sustainable engagement.
  • 13% are detached, meaning they feel enabled and/or energized, but are not willing to go the extra mile.
  • Nearly one-quarter (23%) are completely disengaged, with less favorable scores for all three aspects of sustainable engagement.

The study identifies specific attributes of a work environment that are critical to traditional engagement, enablement and energy, highlighting actions employers can take to improve engagement and increase productivity. For the unsupported, the most significant factors relate to how their supervisors support them on the job, their levels of stress and the severity of their workloads. For the detached, company leadership stood as the focal point. Detached workers lack an emotional connection to the organization, stemming from feelings that they do not work for a company with strong values, clear vision and a leadership team that takes employees' interests and needs into account.

"Many companies are still operating in a traditional mode, with processes and programs designed for an era that has effectively disappeared," Sejen said. "Employers need to consider the dramatic changes occurring in the employment relationship, and they need to address the elements creating this situation. The consequences of maintaining the status quo may be more problematic than before, given the level and pace of change."

When considering the unsupported 27% of the workforce, clear areas for employer focus emerged:

  • 43% of them agreed that their supervisors had adequately removed obstacles to help them perform their job well.
  • 26% agreed management involved employees in decisions that affected them.
  • 48% felt the amount of work they had to do was reasonable.
  • 40% of the unsupported felt they had enough employees in their work group to get the job done correctly.

Far more of the highly engaged employees — with responses at least 30 percentage points higher — are positive about these areas.

The detached segment demonstrated little confidence in senior leadership. When asked if they had trust and confidence in the performance of their company’s senior team, just 25% agreed — a 52-percentage-point disparity from the 77% of the highly engaged who agreed with the statement. And when asked whether they agreed that senior leadership had a sincere interest in employees' well-being, a 45-percentage-point gap appeared between the detached (26%) and the highly engaged (71%).

Although the unsupported and detached segments comprise two-fifths of the study sample and represent a risk for employers, they also represent an opportunity. The study findings point to specific actions employers can take to address the elements missing for these individuals in the work environment, putting solutions directly within companies' control.

"There is a real imperative for change right now. The risks of continuing to manage with traditional practices are just too great from a performance perspective. And everyone in an organization has a role to play in helping close gaps in employees' feelings of enablement and energy — from executives, to supervisors, to human resources, to employees themselves," Gebauer said. "By taking actions to address identified gaps, organizations will be able to move some of the unsupported and detached to engaged — and likely experience a measurable and positive impact on financial performance."

Other key findings:

  • 47% agree there are no substantial obstacles to getting their job done well.
  • 53% don't feel their organization makes it possible for them to have a healthy balance between work and personal life.
  • 30% say they're bothered by excess pressure on the job.
  • 47% believe their supervisors don't have enough time to handle the people aspects of their role.
  • 32% say their organization does a good job of providing opportunities for advancement
  • 37% agree their senior management does a good job at developing future leaders.
  • 49% say they have trust and confidence in their company's senior leadership team.

The "Global Workforce Study" covers more than 32,000 employees selected from research panels that represent the populations of full-time employees working in large and mid-size organizations across a range of industries in 29 markets around the world. It was fielded online during February and March 2012. The U.S. sample includes 3,600 employees and has a margin of error of +/-2%.

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