Mike Jones Better Happy Founder
Making employee engagement and wellbeing a pragmatic priority
I believe that prioritising employee engagement and wellbeing is not only pivotal to business success but is also the key to addressing many of the world's most challenging problems.
Therefore, if you are in a leadership or management position, learning about and prioritising wellbeing & engagement isn’t just something you should do to improve the performance of people, teams and business… but as you’ll see, it’s something that if you do will make the world a better place.
Before diving into this topic it’s useful for us to be clear on what it is that I mean when I use the terms wellbeing and engagement throughout this article.
By wellbeing, I mean that a person is generally experiencing good health and energy levels most but not all of the time.
By engagement I mean they enjoy and are motivated by what they do most of the time. They are emotionally committed to the success of the organisation and not just doing what is required of them to get by or purely trying to get more for themselves.
For this article, I am going to take you through my vision for employee engagement and not well-being. The reason for this is that I believe that employee engagement supersedes employee wellbeing. A person can know everything in the world about being healthy but if they aren’t engaged in their work they won’t be able to utilise that knowledge, so this is where we start.
Learning about employee engagement… the hard way
At the ripe old age of 25, I left the UK military after 5 years of service. In my fourth year, I had served two almost back to back 5-month tours of Afghanistan supporting the Special Boat Service (SBS). The work I was undertaking in Afghanistan was relentless. Sometimes I would be lucky to get 4 hours of sleep in 24 hours, the pace was relentless and, as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s not the kind of work you can try to cruise through on autopilot.
Although this work was exhausting and had to be followed up with a long stint of R&R, it’s not the work or risking my life that led to me feeling burnt out, fed up, depressed and ultimately leaving. It was a poor relationship with a bad manager. During my fourth year of service, I encountered a manager who, to put it politely, had no grasp of the concept of employee engagement. This person cared about one thing and one thing only, progressing his career. He did this by overpromising anything and everything to the people above him, crushing the people below him with constant work overload and micromanagement and protecting himself by creating a culture of fear so nobody dared challenge or report his behaviour. I chose to challenge the behaviour and my life was made a misery for 2 years because of that choice. Over these two years, I felt increasingly helpless (until I finally removed the power he held over me by resigning). I felt alone and unhappy. I drank increasingly more and lost my self-confidence. I didn’t begin to repair this until approximately 4 months after leaving the military.
There are multiple lessons to be learnt from this story of my experience. A standout one is that poor management can and does have a more detrimental impact on a person's health and engagement levels than sending them to Afghanistan and working them 20 hours a day! But the most important lesson to be taken from this is that how a person feels at work impacts directly impacts their whole life.. significantly.
The average adult spends 50% of their waking hours Monday to Friday at work. Employee engagement statistics show us there are three major ways in which employees experience this time:
A) They enjoy and are motivated by it and committed to achieving success (Engaged)
B) They are indifferent toward it and do the minimum that is required (Disengaged)
C) They dislike it and sabotage (Actively Disengaged)
The logic for prioritising employee engagement in a business is obvious. If your people are engaged they are going to turn up, do a great job and stick around. If your people are less than engaged they are going to do the bare minimum, take advantage of the system and or leave if it suits them. The data supports this with employee survey giant Gallup showing that, amongst other benefits, organisations in the top quarter of engagement levels vs the bottom quarter of engagement levels have 10% higher customer ratings, 20% higher profits and 65% less employee turnover.
Working to drive and maintain high levels of engagement seems to be a logically obvious thing to do. It’s a win/win. Organisations benefit from it, individuals benefit from it and as we’ll explore shortly the world benefits from it. But the truth is, by and large, we don’t do it very well at all. We don’t truly know how engaged all employees are in their work but any of us reading this will know, through personal experience that nowhere near 80+% of employees are engaged in their work. The more generous data suggests the number of employees that are engaged is around 50%.
If this is correct (I suspect the true figure is less) that means that at least half of the working population of our country does not enjoy or actively dislikes their work. As we saw with my personal albeit extreme example, this can and does lead to poor mental health and the host of issues that brings with it.
Why aren’t we better at it?
Considering the list of obvious benefits that high engagement brings with it to every person and the wider society involved, the obvious question to ask is on the whole, why are we so bad at it?
There are a few factors to consider here. One is the challenge that can be deduced from my previously shared story.
If you want a surefire way to limit the success of a company and degrade the engagement levels of the wider culture then allow people like this to survive and thrive in your organisation. Unfortunately, people like this often do progress and can be found in senior levels of companies, services and politics throughout our country and the wider world. The recent situation with P&O ferries is a solid example of people in a senior position having little to no care about their people and prioritising themselves.
Although this is a problem, by and large, my experiences of working with different companies have shown me that most managers and leaders do genuinely care about their people. Assuming that most organisations, leaders and managers do care about their people, why do they struggle to support high engagement levels?
A) Because the old way of doing things wasn’t designed to support engagement
B) Because prioritising engagement over comfort is hard
Briefly covering point A. Employee engagement levels weren’t majorly important to businesses of the past. Employees didn’t have much choice in jobs and were appreciative when they could get a job which meant low levels of employee turnover were virtually guaranteed as long as you didn’t completely burn out, injure or kill your staff. Management was conceived then not necessarily to support employees but to ensure they did as much as possible for as long as possible. For most of us fortunate enough to be born in wealthy developed countries such as the UK the picture is thankfully different now and the employee has much more freedom and choice.
But again, from my experiences of working with a wide variety of companies of all shapes and sizes, I don’t think the major challenge is managers and leaders being stuck in the old times. This is certainly a factor to consider but most leaders and managers are very open to change in mindset and approach.
This leads us to point B. Engagement both on an organisational and individual level is hard. We, humans, tend to simplify things and think in extremes. Therefore when it comes to engagement levels our minds can automatically assume that people either love or hate their work. But the hate zone isn’t the main barrier to high engagement. The comfort zone is the main barrier to high employee engagement.
For people to be engaged they need to be emotionally committed to success. They need to be developing and growing. There’s a famous quote that states ‘If you’re not growing you’re dying'. In the modern world, I think this needs to be changed to ‘If you’re not growing, you’re comfortable… and unhappy’.
We’ve made being comfortable very easy in the modern western world. In regards to achieving high levels of engagement with ourselves and our employees, the biggest challenge we face is being able to choose growth and the effort required to achieve that growth over comfort. Paradoxically many of the leaders and managers I have had the pleasure of working with who genuinely care about their people and their businesses and therefore want to improve engagement find their biggest barrier to be worrying about pushing their employees out of their comfort zones.
It’s a nice thing to be able to care for and support our people, but emphasising comfort whilst being fearful of the discomfort that is a pre-requisite for growth is a rock-solid roadblock on the journey to high employee engagement.
Here we might find ourselves thinking about mental health and burnout. We have become much more aware of the presence and impacts of mental health which is a good thing. But it also presents us with challenges a major one being fear. Fear that by putting any pressure on ourselves or others we might create poor mental health, suffer the consequences and be held accountable.
I have lived through burnout myself and had the pleasure of working with many others who have lived through severe burnout leading to depression. From my experience and listening to others I've come to formulate the view that burnout and the mental health issues it creates ARE created by working too much… but… in my opinion, it’s not the overworking that needs to be addressed, it’s the factors that lead to the overworking of which I’ve recognised commonalities in all cases. The person that reaches burnout is:
A highly engaged employee or business owner
A very conscientious person
Since they both care genuinely care about their work and other people, they tend to say yes to too much to please the people above them yet not seek support from the people below or around them because they don’t want to burden them. In an organisation with high engagement levels, this rarely happens as although growth is prioritised, so are people and so is teamwork. In an organisation with low engagement levels, those who are genuinely engaged have a higher risk of burnout which again emphasises why it’s so important to understand, prioritise and drive high engagement levels.
I believe a real challenge that organisations (and societies) will need to comprehend and address over the coming years is being so fearful of putting any pressure on any person that as a nation we end up settling with comfort, the damage of which we are already starting to see all around us.
Returning to our previous point then, one of the major barriers to sustainable high engagement levels is being able to choose and support others to choose commitment to growth over comfort. How can we do that?
Engagement is our responsibility
After leaving the military I don’t know that I would describe myself as a highly engaged individual. I’m not referring to engagement regarding an employee but personally. I wasn’t unhappy, I was very happy at being out of the military and the feeling of freedom that came with this, but I certainly felt like choosing comfort and pleasure over commitment and growth. In all honesty, I didn’t know who I was or what it was I could grow towards. So after returning home for three days I booked a one-way ticket to Thailand and didn’t return to the UK for 2 and a half years.
I had lots of wonderful experiences during those years, which led to deep insights and paradigm shifts which have shaped my views and life today. I spent many months living in monasteries in Nepal and Thailand, living with people who have much less freedom and opportunity than each of us do. To my surprise, I found that many of these people were healthier, less stressed and therefore happier than myself and most of our population here in the UK.
It’s this experience that truly made me appreciate the opportunities I have available just by simply being a British citizen. This experience also helped me comprehend that the privilege we inherit by being born into developed and wealthy societies comes with a significantly increased amount of responsibility. To put it into very simple terms if you took all of the resources in the world including money, we in our country have a disproportionately large amount. That means we have more opportunities to make change in the world, both positively and negatively.
To put this into context, many of the people I lived with in Nepal would never have the prospect of getting a passport or travelling (as a landlocked country this means they will never get to experience seeing the ocean). In the UK we see large advertisements every day for new films, cars, holidays… In Nepal, the majority of the adverts are for education. A family will save aggressively for life to put one or two children through education.
You might ask yourself what does this have to do with employee engagement levels so it’s here that I return to my personal story.
What kind of person was I when I was having a rough time in the military? If you remember I had a very bad relationship with a toxic manager that slowly ate away at me. It made me resent the job and ultimately begin to question myself. It hindered my trust in people therefore I didn’t speak to others for help. I become very closed, I tried to suppress my emotions and became mentally unwell. My way of coping with this was to drink excessively, go out partying all of the time, keep myself busy and play video games. Perhaps my saving grace was that I still had a love for fitness and thanks to my loving grandparents' love for travel as well as the confidence to travel alone. Without those two things, it’s very easy to see how that path could have led to suicide, prison or a life of unhappiness.
In a country like Nepal, in general, the impacts a person's actions have on the world are limited, compared to ours due to the lack of resources and opportunities they have access to. An unhappy person in the poorer parts of Nepal might drink, might use drugs, might cause trouble and in the end, might commit suicide. On the opposite side, a happy, passionate and driven person in Nepal is going to have a much harder time getting traction behind their dreams due to a lack of resources including things we take for granted such as access to the internet and devices that enable us to utilise it (one of the great things about technology is that it is making it easier for those with less to access resources from around the world and launch pursue their dreams).
When we are born into the privilege of a wealthy country with large amounts of the world's resources, the impact of the actions we take on the wider world is amplified tenfold. If we line this up with the different behaviours we expect to accompany different levels of engagement it starts to become clear how the engagement levels we are enabling in our workplaces have significant implications on the wider world:
An actively disengaged employee severely dislikes their job and is therefore highly likely to be stressed and unhappy. The typical behaviours we would expect to see here are the numbing of emotions through excessive substance use, food or other distractions. We also expect to see poor mental health leading to poor physical health.
In summary, people that are actively disengaged in work are likely to over-consume resources and cost their employer and our services substantial amounts of money.
A disengaged employee doesn’t hate or love their job, they just see it as a job. Therefore they don’t feel particularly energised or excited about the work that they spend 50% of their waking adult hours at. The typical behaviours we would expect to see here are the person finding stimulation through material consumption such as experiences, food, holidays and luxuries. They may or may not have good health levels but due to their lack of development, they are unlikely to experience optimal levels of mental well-being and are more at risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health than someone who is engaged in their work. As their work doesn’t energise them it’s less likely that they will be able to consistently put time and effort into their health.
In summary, people that are disengaged in work are ‘comfortable’. They find stimulation through material consumption and are at higher risks of experiencing both poor physical and mental health.
An engaged employee is passionate about their job. Therefore they feel energised by their work and have good levels of self-confidence. This person has a level of inner peace and is purpose-driven. They focus on growth and making a positive difference to those around them by utilising the unique talents they have discovered and continue to hone through work. Although enjoying themselves and having things, they don’t feel the need to find comfort through material excess.
In summary, people that are engaged in the workplace still, of course, consume but they naturally and without effort use their privilege to make a positive impact on those around them and the wider world.
This is of course a simplification but the points made are clear and easy to comprehend. When we have the good fortune to be born into developed and wealthy societies our influence on the world is inherently significant. We, therefore, are either a part of the problem or a part of the solution and this is largely dictated by how engaged we are in the work that we do - therefore I believe it is our responsibility, especially as organisations and leaders to prioritise and drive employee engagement to make the world a better place.
The science and psychology tell us that to be psychologically well we need to be moving towards what is important to us. We need to be growing. Driving engagement is the constant battle against settling for comfort. Doing this with others in a supportive environment is the way to stop this from leading to burnout. Many people don’t have the best start in life, struggle with self-confidence and spend much of their lives feeling lost. When an organisation grasps and prioritises employee engagement they help individuals transform their lives, they thrive as companies and as we’ve covered, they make the world a better place.