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Received May 2009 Revised September 2009 Accepted October 2009

Full engagement: the integration of employee engagement and psychological well-being

Ivan T. Robertson

Robertson Cooper Ltd, Manchester, and Leeds University Business School, Leeds, UK, and

Cary L. Cooper

Lancaster University Management School, Lancaster, UK


Purpose – By introducing the concept of “full engagement,” this article aims to propose that employee engagement is more likely to be sustainable when employee well-being is also high. Design/methodology/approach – Research evidence covering the separate concepts is reviewed and evidence of the benefits that both engagement and well-being confer on organizations is presented. Findings – Most current perspectives on employee engagement include little of direct relevance to well-being and reflect a narrow, commitment-based view of engagement. This view focuses too heavily on benefits to organizations. A broader conception of engagement (referred to as “full engagement”), which includes employee well-being, is a better basis for building sustainable benefits for individuals and organizations. Research limitations/implications – Research exploring the links between employee engagement and well-being is needed to validate and develop the propositions put forward in this article. Practical implications – A model for improving full engagement in organizations is presented and brief; case study illustrations are also given. Originality/value – The integration of well-being and commitment-based engagement into the single construct of full engagement provides a novel perspective.

Keywords Employee attitudes, Work psychology, Occupational psychology, Psychology

Paper type Research paper

psychology, Psychology Paper type Research paper Leadership & Organization Development Journal Vol. 31

Leadership & Organization Development Journal Vol. 31 No. 4, 2010 pp. 324-336 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited


DOI 10.1108/01437731011043348

Purpose and background This article seeks to bring together the two previously distinct constructs of employee engagement and psychological well-being. Both constructs are currently of interest to practitioners and researchers alike but currently they are not normally considered together and form the focus of distinctive and separate research streams. By reviewing the conceptualisation and measurement of both constructs the article seeks to develop the proposition that current views of engagement are too narrow. The current, narrow focus of employee engagement concentrates too heavily on employee commitment, attachment and citizenship and not enough on employee psychological well-being. The article seeks to demonstrate that this integrated construct of “full engagement” provides a better theoretical and practical viewpoint. Around the world there is currently a great deal of interest in the concepts of employee engagement and employee well-being. Employee engagement has become a very important issue during the last decade and research from survey data frequently

reveals low levels of engagement in many countries. For example in mainland China 33 percent of people are reported to be partly or fully disengaged, figures for many other countries show similarly high levels of disengagement. Evidence of high levels of interest in employee well-being is more difficult to find on a global basis but there is evidence that interest is growing, at least in some countries. For example, in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reported a very large increase (from 26-42 percent), over a one-year period, in the number of employers with an employee well-being strategy or similar approach (CIPD, 2007a). In addition to indications of heightened interest within organizations, there is also significant interest at national government level in well-being. For example, a number of UK government-sponsored working groups and reports have focused on well-being, including the Foresight report on Mental Capital and Well-being (www.foresight.gov.uk), Dame Carol Black’s report on Health, Work and Well-being – and the related government response (Office of Public Sector Information, 2008). On a national scale, the impact of poor psychological well-being on the economy is significant. Recent estimates of the costs to business of stress and other mental health conditions for the UK economy are £3.8 billion a year (CIPD, 2007b). Stress and poor mental health represent the tip of the iceberg as far as psychological well-being is concerned – and take no account of the potential financial gains that could be achieved through improvements in positive well-being, for individuals and organisations (Robertson, 2007).

Full engagement


Engagement and psychological well-being Organisational and individual benefits Research evidence suggests that high levels of psychological well-being and employee engagement play a central role in delivering some of the important outcomes that are associated with successful, high performing organisations. First, research has established that psychological well-being is directly correlated with performance. Wright and Cropanzano (2000) report two field studies which both demonstrate positive relationships between levels of psychological well-being and job performance, (see also Cropanzano and Wright, 2004, for an longitudinal examination of the relationship between well-being and performance over a five year period) These studies show that people with higher levels of psychological well-being perform better at work than those with lower psychological well-being; indeed, the results from Wright and Cropanzano (2000) show that well-being is a stronger predictor of job performance than job satisfaction. As well as the research by Wright and Cropanzano, linking psychological well-being with performance, Donald et al. (2005) in a study of 16,000 employees found that almost 25 percent of the variance in reported levels of employee productivity was predicted by psychological well-being, the perceived “commitment of the organisation to the employee” and “resources and communication”. Using meta-analysis techniques Harter et al. (2002) analysed data from nearly 8,000 separate business units in 36 companies. They found significant relationships between scores on an employee survey and business unit level outcomes, such as customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, employee turnover and sickness/absence levels. Their research reports are particularly interesting, as they illustrate the potential relationships between psychological well-being and employee engagement. Although they discuss their work




as an illustration of the “well-being” approach in some of their publications (Harter et al. , 2003), they also refer to the survey that they use as a measure of engagement-satisfaction (Harter et al. , 2002). For employees, psychological well-being is linked to important individual outcomes, including a range of mental and physical health issues, with lower levels of psychological well-being linked to poorer health. The impact of job strain on the individual has been heavily reported by researchers (Cooper and Quick, 1999). The impact of job strain on employees in the public sector has been extensively studied in the UK. A series of research studies (e.g. Ferrie et al., 2005; Griffin et al., 2007) have explored the relationships between job conditions, individual health and other outcomes in a study of government employees. Kuper and Marmot (2003) looked at a cohort of over 10,000 British Civil servants. The results revealed that factors in the job, such as low levels of control and autonomy, were associated with an increased risk of serious illness. So, low psychological well-being caused by workplace factors is a major health risk for employees. Studies elsewhere (e.g. Cohen et al., 2006) have shown links with minor physical illnesses, such as the common cold.

Employee engagement In fact, although there is some broad agreement about the type of factors included in “employee engagement”, there is a lack of clarity about its definition and measurement. Robinson et al. (2004, p. 9) give a definition of engagement as, “ A positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within

the job for the benefit of the organization

engagement surveys focus on the aspects of engagement that are most obviously related to “positive” employee behavior, and cover established psychological concepts, such as organizational citizenship (e.g. Organ and Paine, 1999) and organizational commitment and attachment (e.g. Meyer, 1997). For example, the Utrecht Work Engagement Survey (Schaufeli et al., 2006) concentrates on three factors: vigour, dedication and absorption. The Gallup Workplace Audit (see Harter et al., 2002) focuses on factors such as clarity – knowing what’s expected and control (input and opportunity). By and large practitioners and researchers views of engagement embody the three core concepts of Attachment, Commitment and Organisational Citizenship. These concepts reflect a focus on the aspects of engagement that are likely to be most directly involved in driving positive employee behaviour. As such, they reflect a focus on “Narrow Engagement” – i.e. the factors that are of most direct interest to employers and organizations, since they describe positive employee behaviour that is likely to lead to more effective performance and confer direct benefits on the organization. Typical questions in (narrow) employee engagement surveys are illustrated below:

”. In general, the items in most

The goals of my organization make me feel that my job is important.

I am committed to this organization.

My opinions are listened to by my bosses at work.

I am enthusiastic about the job I do.

At work, I am prepared to work hard, even when things do not go well.

The Narrow Engagement approach reflects a “commitment/citizenship” model of engagement, in which employees’ commitment and citizenship are seen as important factors in the overall success of the organization. In addition to this focus on “narrow engagement”, many engagement questionnaires also include at least a few items that focus on employee psychological well-being (e.g. “I enjoy my work and feel happy at work”) – but, by and large, they do not distinguish between employee psychological well-being and the narrow engagement factors. Of course, narrow (strong commitment and good citizenship) engagement is important for the organization, but in some ways it is less important for employees. There are certainly benefits to employees from being committed to their work and feeling positive about the organization that they work for, but the long-term benefit for employees “themselves” is closely linked to their personal psychological well-being.

Full engagement


Psychological well-being

Researchers interested in the measurement and impact of psychological well-being identify two broad approaches to the concept. The first broad approach (usually referred to as “hedonic”) associates well-being with the experience of positive feelings (moods and emotions) and factors such as overall life satisfaction. In other words, for this approach, well-being involves feeling good. This approach to well-being is limited as it takes no account of the importance of life experiences having a purpose. The other, complementary, approach to well-being takes account of the importance of the “purpose” in well-being. This approach is usually referred to as the “eudaimonic” approach. To understand the distinction between “eudaimonic” and “hedonic” approaches to well-being, it helps to distinguish between experiences and feelings of well-being. For example, most people will readily accept that an unrelenting series of what are initially pleasurable experiences will gradually become less enjoyable and fail to produce the same positive emotional experience. For example, sitting on a yacht in the Mediterranean with unlimited sun, food and drink would certainly make most people happy for a while – but day after day, week after week – and year after year, it would surely begin to seem pointless and would challenge the happiness of even the most determined hedonist. In fact, most people will also accept that living a life that involves moving from one positive experience to another will not be particularly enjoyable – unless the experiences have a point – or lead towards achieving a worthwhile goal of some kind. This key principle of a worthwhile life being one that has a point or “a purpose” is the core of the eudaimonic approach to well-being. As Boniwell and Henry (2007) point out, Aristotle was the originator of the term

eudaimonia and conceived that true happiness is found by “

doing what is worth

doing” (Boniwell and Henry, 2007, p. 8). More recent work in the area of positive psychology also supports the idea of purpose and positive emotion, as the key ingredients of psychological well-being. Findings emerge from the cumulative impact of a number of research studies and experiments (e.g. Fredrickson, 1998; Fredrickson and Joiner, 2002; Seligman et al., 2005). The message from these findings is that the development of psychological well-being is dependent on two key factors. The first key factor is the beneficial impact that positive emotional experiences have on the growth of psychological well-being. Fredrickson (1998) proposed a new theory specifically for positive emotions. Essentially, Fredrickson shows that the experience of positive emotions serves to


broaden the scope of people’s attention, thought processes and action; furthermore it also serves to build physical, intellectual and social resources. Further research has

also shown that the broadening effect of positive emotions leads to an upward positive


spiral in which, “

positive affect and broad-minded coping serially enhanced one


positive emotions initiate upward spirals towards enhanced emotional ” (Fredrickson and Joiner, 2002, p. 172).



The second key finding is that an overall “sense of purpose”, that gives direction and meaning to people’s actions, enhances the impact that positive emotions can have on psychological well-being. In a study of people who were recovering from the trauma of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001, Fredrickson et al. (2003) observed the beneficial effect that positive emotions had and suggested that, “ finding positive meaning may be the most powerful leverage point for cultivating positive emotions during times of crisis” (Fredrickson et al. , 2003, p. 374). These points suggest that a complete concept of well-being should include both “pleasure” and “purpose”. A workable view of psychological well-being at work therefore needs to encompass both the degree to which employees experience positive emotions at work and the extent to which they experience meaning and purpose in their work. Robertson and Flint-Taylor (2008) define psychological well-being at work as, “The affective and purposive psychological state that people experience while they are at work”.


Full engagement The evidence reviewed above suggests strongly that a wider construct of “full engagement”, which incorporates both commitment/citizenship and employee well-being is likely to provide more beneficial outcomes for employees and organisations alike. Concentrating only on commitment and citizenship leaves employees at risk of poor psychological health and implies that high levels of engagement are unlikely to be sustained over time. The concept of full engagement rests on the principle that the beneficial impact of narrow engagement is enhanced when psychological well-being is also high – and similarly the negative effects of low engagement would be exacerbated when psychological well-being is poor. Robertson and Birch (2010) have provided recent empirical evidence to support this proposition. They carried out an investigation with a sample of over 10,000 people across 12 different organisations. Their results revealed that the inclusion of measures of psychological well-being enhanced the relationships between narrow engagement and various outcomes (e.g. productivity). A broader focus on full engagement gives due emphasis to the psychological well-being of employees. This wider focus on psychological well-being is important and better reflects a more rounded view of engagement, covering both the aspects of narrow engagement that describe positive employee behaviour but also assuring underlying employee psychological well-being, which in turn is important in supporting high engagement. As the research reported above (Robertson and Birch, 2010) suggests, attempts to enhance employee engagement will achieve only limited success if they focus narrowly on commitment and citizenship, without seeking to nurture employee psychological well-being. There is clear evidence that people with higher levels of psychological well-being are healthier (mentally and physically), have happier lives and live longer (Cartwright and Cooper, 2008) but importantly, research

also shows that they are likely to take a more positive approach to their work and their relationships with colleagues. High levels of psychological well-being are associated with a range of positive outcomes and behaviours that would support stronger employee engagement. People with higher levels of psychological well-being are less likely to see ambiguous events as threatening (Seidlitz and Diener, 1993; Seidlitz et al., 1997). Processing neutral or ambiguous events as threatening, for instance, is most unhelpful in an organisational setting, where change is taking place and is likely to lead to higher levels of resistance, suspicion and disengagement. Evidence also shows that unfavourable feedback is seen as more hurtful by people with lower psychological well-being, and positive feedback produces more benefits for people with higher psychological well-being. People with lower psychological well-being also use more contentious interpersonal tactics (e.g. Larsen and Ketelar, 1991; Derryberry and Read, 1994). On the other hand, people with higher levels of psychological well-being, learn and problem solve more effectively, are more enthusiastic about change, relate to others more positively and accept change more readily (Cartwright and Cooper, 2008). It is difficult to think of another set of characteristics, apart from job-specific skills, that are more important to an organisation’s success, or provide a better basis for developing strong levels of engagement. The findings reviewed above reinforce the idea that employee psychological well-being might be a critically important factor in supporting high levels of engagement. We believe that it is important to utilize the concept of “full engagement”, which measures both the narrow engagement factors such as organizational citizenship and employee commitment (which are easily recognized by employers as important), and the aspect of positive psychological well-being that reflect full engagement.

Full engagement


Applying the model The incorporation of commitment/citizenship and psychological well-being into a single concept of full engagement provides a construct that delivers benefits for both employees and organizations. For both practitioners and researchers it is therefore important to be able to identify the key factors that might be used to bring about improvements in full engagement. Faragher et al. (2007) report on a means of measuring the aspects of the workplace that block well-being and limit potential engagement levels. The key factors that they assess through the psychometric measure ASSET are:









work relationships;

work-life balance;

work overload;

job security;


resources and communications;

pay and benefits;

job satisfaction.

More recently the ASSET measure has been further developed to incorporate direct measures of full engagement, including:







sense of purpose;

organisational commitment;


positive psychological well-being as well as physical health and psychological health (Robertson Cooper, 2008b).

Obviously measuring current levels of full engagement and the workplace factors that block or enhance it represents an essential stage in improving engagement but from a practical point of view other steps are also critical. These steps include developing a business case.


The business case Without a “business case” there is limited hope of engaging business leaders with the idea of investing in well-being. There will almost certainly be those who equate well-being with providing free massages and doing yoga in the workplace, rather than seeing it as a tangible and value-adding process of improving levels of psychological well-being that leads to sustainable levels of high performance. This starting point means that those responsible for corporate well-being often still find it difficult to present a solid business case for investing in an integrated approach to well-being. However, as the evidence reviewed above indicates, there is a substantial body of work demonstrating the potential benefits. It is clear that some progress is being made with 42 percent of respondents to a recent UK survey (CIPD, 2007b) indicating that expect their organisation’s well-being “spend” will increase in future – but only 11 percent of respondents believe their organisation’s employees fully appreciate the benefit of this spend. Nearly 40 percent of respondents rate their organisation’s communication strategy on employee well-being as poor (CIPD, 2007b). The critical role of the business case is to bring together the research evidence and integrate it with where the organisation is right now. The research helps the top management to believe that well-being and engagement interventions really work. A key to a successful full engagement intervention involves clarity about the benefits at an early stage, so that action can be focused effectively and progress monitored. What this implies is that one of the first steps in improving full engagement is to identify the strategic goals that improvements in full engagement will help the organisation to achieve. These organisation-specific benefits make the vision and potential of an engaged workforce feel “real” for the organisation. The initiative becomes anchored, focused and crucially, success becomes measurable.

Measuring well-being and engagement levels Once the need to invest in is recognised, it’s important to be able to measure current levels of full engagement and examine the views of the workforce on the key workplace factors that drive well-being and engagement. This generally means an organisation-wide survey that is specifically focused on the relevant issues, perhaps supplemented with information from focus groups across key areas of the organisation.

Taking action Once clear information about the current situation is available the focus turns to development of an interventions, designed to bring about improvements in full engagement. The use of a very simple three category system provides a way of organizing the types of interventions that might be developed to improve well-being and engagement:


composition (e.g. changing the composition of people in the work force, through


selection processes, redeployment and job placement); development (i.e. developing the people who are already part of the workforce,

Full engagement


through training, coaching, feedback and other development activities); and (3) situational engineering (i.e. re-engineering the situation that people work in through job and work redesign, changes in management and supervision and organizational change).

These three areas cover all of the main types of interventions that anyone working with people in organizations could hope to make. A critical issue for many organisations here is the extent to which the different functional areas are integrated and capable of coordinating their efforts. For example in a setting where Occupational Health, Talent Management and Health and Safety are all distinctly different functions with their own agendas it may be difficult to organise an intervention strategy that gains the commitment of all three areas. Talent management specialists may be heavily focused on the attraction and selection of talent, whereas occupational health personnel may prioritise employee psychological health and the creation of effective employee assistance programmes. In practice, high levels of psychological well-being will help in the attraction of new talent and the retention of existing people and coordinated effort from both areas will bring greater benefits than if they act separately. Existing research and practice can provide support and help in all three types of intervention noted above (i.e. composition, development and situational engineering). In relation to the composition of the workforce the focus needs to be on the full range of talent management issues, but, in particular, ensuring that employees are well-suited to the demands that their roles will place on them by advising organisations on matching the employees’ characteristics (personality and abilities) with the demands of the role. In terms of development there is for example, a growing research literature on positive psychology and the development of resilience (e.g. Tugade and Fredrickson, 2004; Yehuda et al., 2006). This literature provides a basis for the development of effective training programmes that build resilience in employees so that they can cope effectively with the stresses and strains of their roles. There is also an even more well-established approach to stress management training which has been shown to produce positive results. When it comes to the situation that people work in, there is an extensive literature on job and work design (e.g. Bond and Bunce, 2001) to help organisations to provide psychologically healthy and engaging jobs for employees. Perhaps the biggest single influence on every employees day to day experience of work is his or her line manager. At the operational level the leader or manager is in a uniquely powerful position when it comes to influencing the psychological well-being and engagement of others. Research has established that poor and unsupportive management is linked to a range of negative




pressures and outcomes such as high employee turnover (e.g. Sosik and Godshalk, 2000). Gilbreath and Benson (2004) showed that supervisor behaviour had an incremental impact on employee psychological well-being with supervisor behaviour contributing to the prediction of psychiatric disturbance beyond age, health practices, support from

other people at work, support from home, stressful life events, and stressful work events.

this provides additional evidence that supervisor behaviour can

affect employee well-being and suggests that those seeking to create healthier workplaces should not neglect supervision.” (Gilbreath and Benson, 2004, p 255). Figure 1 and Table I provide an indication of how the results of an audit of well-being and engagement in an organisation can be used to develop an intervention plan. Figure 1 illustrates how the key factors (see above for a list of the factors) that drive well-being and engagement can be combined with the three broad types of intervention

As they noted, “

to form a grid that can then be populated with possible specific interventions. Table I gives an illustration of interventions designed to improve full engagement by influencing one of the key factors (work-life balance). Figure 2 provides an overview of the steps involved in developing interventions to improve full engagement.

Figure 1. Identifying interventions

full engagement. Figure 1. Identifying interventions Division “A”   Key driver Composition

Division “A”


Key driver



Situational engineering


Review selection procedures to focus on better predictors of full engagement Redeploy staff Recruit key types of staff Use engagement scores to attract better recruits

Develop clinical leaders to balance challenge and support more effectively Review and revise the appraisal and performance management processes Resilience training for employees and managers

Review and improve work planning and distribution mechanisms Reduce workload Adapt technology and resources

Table I. Illustrative action plan


Full engagement 333 Figure 2. The road to full engagement One of the biggest pitfalls

Full engagement


Figure 2. The road to full engagement

One of the biggest pitfalls for well-being initiatives is “consultation without action” – every year staff in organisations show a lot of good will when they complete all manner of surveys and they are entitled to expect to see a clear plan of action when the results are in. But it’s not only plans that they’re looking for – they want to see real improvement in their working lives, so it’s important to budget beyond the initial survey and include enough funds to actually make a difference for employees. The actions that are taken post-survey depend, to a large extent, on the results from the survey. In fact, many organisations see this as the start of a much broader change process. For example, Kent Police in the UK used a survey tool to measure well-being and then implemented a programme of interventions to drive organisational development and improvement (Robertson Cooper, 2008a). In two years, the interventions led to a 25 percent reduction in sickness absence (equivalent to 18,600 sick days saved per year across the workforce of around 6,000 people), as well as improvements in survey scores when a second survey was administered. An estimate of the average cost of a day’s absence is £78 (CIPD, 2007a), so that equates to a saving of nearly £1.5M per annum for Kent Police.

Discussion The integration of employee engagement and psychological well-being into the construct of full engagement may provide a practically useful approach to improving organisational effectiveness. Research shows that both factors are linked to beneficial organisation-level outcomes and it is theoretically quite feasible that the combined effect of both factors is greater than each one alone. Some initial research evidence




supports this view and shows that the inclusion of psychological well-being enhances the relationships between engagement and beneficial outcomes. The proposition that psychological well-being is important in developing sustainable levels of employee engagement also appears to be consistent with theoretical expectations and background research evidence. Individuals with higher levels of psychological well-being behave differently – in ways that would be expected to lead to higher levels of engagement. Further research to explore the relationships between engagement and psychological well-being is required. The interpretation and integration of this research into a coherent body of knowledge will be significantly enhanced if researchers and practitioners could move closer to an agreed definition and measurement protocol for employee engagement. The conceptualisations and measurement of subjective well-being are somewhat clearer and more uniform, although the measurement of well-being at work is still in its relatively early stages of development. Empirical work exploring the statistical relationships between items and scales designed to measure both engagement and well-being at work would also be useful and help to provide a foundation for conceptual and practical progress.

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Further reading Health and Safety Executive (2008), Self-reported Work-related Illness in 2006/2007: Results from The Labour Force Survey , Health and Safety Executive, London. Macleod, D. and Brady, C. (2008), The Extra Mile. How to Engage Your People to Win, Prentice-Hall Financial Times, London. Rahe, R.H., Taylor, C.B., Tolles, R.L., Newhall, L.M., Veach, T.L. and Bryson, S. (2002), “A novel stress and coping workplace program reduces illness and healthcare utilization”, Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 64 No. 2, pp. 278-86.

Corresponding author Ivan T. Robertson can be contacted at: ivan.robertson@robertsoncooper.com

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