By Diane Strohfus, CHRO, Betterworks
We are facing an alarming disconnect when it comes to goals:...
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.
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.
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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