The three psychological factors that drive employee engagement are meaningfulness, safety, and availability.
Effective leaders should balance being externally focused while building community and internal team strength.
As a child, Dr. Jamie Gruman would watch his father come home from work emotionally and physically drained. “I was young and didn’t understand how the world worked, but it didn’t seem necessary to me that working should make people miserable,” Gruman recalls.
Those images of greeting an exhausted father never left him. Now a professor of organizational behaviour at the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, Gruman has dedicated his life’s work to improving wellness in the workplace and bringing awareness to the burnout that inevitably occurs when employers don’t respect and value their employees.
"People are not resources to be used up and thrown away like ink cartridges,” says Gruman. “They’re people. Organizations should strive to foster an environment in which their employees can flourish and thrive.”
Gruman points to three psychological factors that drive employee engagement: meaningfulness, safety, and availability. Employees must be able to feel that their work is important, know that they work in an environment that supports them in their individuality and not merely as a producer, and have the resources they need to fully engage in their role. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the workplace underwent dramatic shifts, these factors held true, says Gruman.
“Ultimately, employers want people who can recharge and come back to their work in attentive and rested form,” he affirms. “Creating a culture of workaholics undermines this objective.”
From Gruman’s perspective, employers have a responsibility to care for their employees in two major ways. First, there’s what he calls the “architecture of human resources,” or the infrastructure of policies that outline leave, flex time, and expectations for after-hours communication. Second, employers must cultivate a healthy work culture in which employees feel encouraged to utilize the resources available to them. “An organization can have healthy policies on paper, but if employees are going to be penalized for taking advantage of them, they’re not going to benefit from them,” Gruman explains.
Gruman acknowledges the need for companies to be strategic with their resources in order to succeed. But he suggests that effective leaders should be able to switch between two modes or “hats” of leadership. “Externally, they focus on building competitive advantage, but internally, they should focus on building community,” he says. “Many leaders become so consumed with the external that they forget to change their hat when they look internally. They start to see their employees as costs to be minimized rather than people to be cherished and developed.”
Yet this holistic view of the workplace doesn’t stop at simply providing tools for employees to live well on their own. As the world slowly emerges from the pandemic, Gruman hopes people will recognize the importance of workplace community rather than only looking out for their own needs. “We need culture and human connections to fully enjoy well-being,” he says.
In a new article published in the Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, Dr. Gruman and his co-authors explore the research on organizational engagement and identify, how it has been measured, and how it compares to job engagement. Their findings indicate that organization engagement is as important, if not more important than job engagement when it comes to its relationship to some of the consequences of employee engagement.
Throughout the pandemic, Gruman has noticed that many companies demand top-notch performance from their employees no matter the cost or the obstacles to success. But he is eager to praise the Lang School of Business and Economics for exemplifying empathy as faculty, staff, and students strive to adjust to a new normal. “In light of my passion for workplace wellness, it’s gratifying to work for an institution that supports its people both in and out of the workplace,” he says. “Learning to work well starts in our own backyard.”
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