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Future of Work

Employee engagement can be a key driver of business success, but unless it is matched with wellbeing support and good stress policies, the effects can be counter-productive says Andy Gibson

You will often hear people say that “a little bit of stress is good for you”. The argument goes that we need a little stress to feel engaged and motivated: if we aren’t worrying about our work, we clearly don’t care enough.

Sadly though, despite occasionally hearing an academic agreeing with this, for the most part this argument is a relic of the past. Stress is a fear response, a sign that you feel in danger, that you are starting to panic, and ethically, medically and legally, it is a Bad Thing. The symptoms of stress include suppressed immune response, insomnia, forgetfulness and irrational risk-taking. A little bit of insomnia isn’t good for you. A little bit of irrational risk-taking isn’t good for your business.

When people talk about the benefits of stress, they usually mean ‘pressure’. Pressure can be very motivating: caring about your work, your colleagues or your bank balance can be energising, and we generally like to rise to challenges and stretch our abilities. The key though is that it is quite possible to do all this without ever feeling afraid. Stress is the point where the pressure gets too much and starts to harm your health and performance, and it should be avoided.

This has important implications for staff engagement. Staff engagement is a key driver of business performance. Engaged employees perform better in their jobs and are less likely to leave, and businesses with high engagement levels tend to outperform the stock market index, post higher shareholder returns and show higher profit margins. Fair incentives, achievable goals, good relationships, choice and autonomy, and an inspiring purpose – get these things right, discretionary effort goes up, and productivity increases.

Staff engagement and stress are deeply linked though. We only get stressed about things that matter to us, so the sources of our stress tend to be linked to what motivates us – wanting to impress a customer, pushing for a promotion, taking pride in our work, and so on. When these things feel beyond our control, we can feel panicky, and stress levels rise. The more we care about our work and colleagues, the more likely we are to get stressed.

Companies that work hard to boost staff engagement can quickly find themselves with a stress problem. Conversely, companies with a stress problem can often find motivation levels plummeting, as people disengage to protect themselves from stress.

High and sustainable the goal

The goal is not simply high engagement, but sustainable engagement – high engagement with low stress. As one study put it: “Engagement, as traditionally defined, is not sufficient to give employers the sustained performance lift they need”. The goal with modern management, in the knowledge economy at least, is to help people stay at their peak, where they are motivated about what they are doing, but not so much that they start to get stressed and become unwell or unproductive.

In fact, according to research into sustainable engagement, employee engagement and psychological wellbeing actually interact with each other to predict people’s performance.

  • Employees with high wellbeing and high engagement are the most productive and happiest employees.
  • Employees with high engagement but low wellbeing levels often ‘burn out’ or leave their jobs.
  • Employees with low engagement but high wellbeing levels are likely to stay but be less committed to their work.
  • Employees with low engagement and low wellbeing tend to contribute the least, and also be reluctant to leave.

So for businesses to thrive, we need to look beyond staff engagement and examine the emotional tone of this engagement. It is not enough simply to know how engaged people are, we also need to know the nature of this engagement. Are people engaged positively or negatively? Are they spending their energy well, or wasting it on worry and inefficiency.

To manage employee engagement successfully, we need to measure the quality of work, not just the quantity. In short, we need to work smarter, not just harder.

So, alongside promoting staff engagement, here are a few things to encourage in your business to help ensure the engagement of your staff doesn’t tip over into stress.

  1. Manage resources – both psychological and practical – carefully. Stress occurs when we think the situation facing us exceed our resources and we can’t respond effectively, so reducing stress is all about building up resources. There may not always be more time and money, but our skills, confidence, supporting relationships and adaptability all contribute to how we feel about the pressure we’re under, so good management involves having a conversation about all these elements before assigning a task, to avoid giving people more than they can cope with.
  2. Build relationships and promote collaboration. The more we can share resources and support each other, the more manageable things feel. After all, we will never have as many resources individually as we do when we collaborate. Investing time in relationship-building and team development, within and between teams, can improve motivation and reduce stress – but remember to incentivise collaboration, not just individual achievement.
  3. Teach managers about the psychology of performance. If managers understand how pressure affects people, how to spot the signs of stress, and how motivation and stress are linked, they are in a much better position to catch issues early and support people appropriately. Without this knowledge, they will often find themselves struggling in the dark, and probably feeling stressed about it too.
  4. Make space for breathers and restorers. The more we can maintain our psychological energy levels at work, the calmer we feel and the more manageable things seem. So build in regular breaks, and create a supportive culture in which doing things that restore energy and relax your mind are seen as vital parts of staying productive, not time wasting distractions.
  5. Treat everyone personally, not bureaucratically. Personality types vary, and so too do our values, motivators and sense of our skills and resources. The same situation can be stressful for one person and motivating for another, so listen to what people say they need and respect their perspective on the situation. Sometimes people just need a confidence boost, other times they need practical help. Fairness doesn’t mean giving everyone the same thing.

Above all, good organisational management should always take account of the states of the minds of staff. Get to know the emotional state of the business, put in place simple processes for checking in with managers and surveying staff about their stress levels alongside your engagement metrics, and look at the two alongside each other. Sustainable engagement is an issue that goes to the very top of every business, and if managed right, it can much more than a mark of a good employer: it can be a key driver of business performance.

A Mind for Business by Andy Gibson of Mindapple is available now, and was Pearson and WHSmith’s Business Book of the Month for March.

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