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Business Journal
Engagement, Well-Being, and the Downturn
Business Journal

Engagement, Well-Being, and the Downturn

Persistent economic problems have hurt American workers, but not fatally

by Jennifer Robison

As many as 14.6 million Americans are unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That means 14.6 million people have been dealing with the losses that come with unemployment: the loss of financial stability, of identity, and of their normal daily routine.

Emily Wright dealt with these losses for a whole year. She lost her management job in consumer marketing in September 2008 and didn't find another one for exactly a year. "It was scary," Wright says. "Some of the others who were laid off didn't know how they were going to be paying the mortgage that month." Fortunately, Wright had six months' worth of living expenses saved, and she received unemployment benefits. But her income and savings barely covered her scaled-down cost of living.The Three Types of Employees

"I joked, kind of, that I was a drain on society because I was taking government money," says Wright. "I never thought it would take this long to get a job. I finally reached a point of wondering how many months I could get by if I sold my car, if I sold my house. By August 2009, I knew that if I didn't get hired soon, I'd be taking a job at the mall."

Effects of stress

Wright's experience is typical for the recently unemployed. But stress about work is not an unusual reaction for people with jobs either. In 2007, the American Psychological Association reported that 74% of Americans said that work is their main source of stress, up from 59% the year before.

There are many ways managers and executives can help employees manage their stress: frequent, honest, and informative communication; involving the workforce in understanding new strategies and explaining how they're essential to the new plans; an emphasis on recognition for good work; and a focus on hope. "Everything we've seen suggests that trust, compassion, stability, and hope are what people need from leaders in times of trouble," says Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management and well-being and coauthor of 12: The Elements of Great Managing.

A Gallup study found that while those tactics work, they're most effective with an engaged workforce. Workplace engagement is the core of the unwritten social contract between employers and employees. It begins at a local level, usually in the relationship between a manager and his or her employees. Engagement results from the fulfillment of 12 universal human needs. And when those needs are met, workers are engaged. (See graphics "The Three Types of Employees" and "The 12 Elements of Great Managing.")

A recent Gallup study examined the attitudes of U.S. workers as the country moved through the recession. Gallup asked respondents about their well-being, whether they had experienced changes in their job status, and whether their company had experienced downsizing or layoffs. Respondents were also asked Gallup's 12-item employee engagement assessment, the Q12, which determines an individual's level of engagement with his or her workplace.

Engagement remained relatively stable as the recession picked up steam. In July 2008, Gallup found that 31% of employees were engaged, 51% were not engaged, and 17% were actively disengaged. Those numbers changed only slightly in March 2009: 30% were engaged, 52% were not engaged, and 18% were actively disengaged. Although overall engagement levels dropped only slightly, Gallup's research revealed lower scores on specific elements of engagement.

The 12 Elements of Great Managing

For instance, scores on the recognition and praise item increased from July 2008 to March 2009. This change could be because "managers are leveraging the non-monetary means they have to motivate their workforces during a down economy," Harter says. "Recognition keeps morale up," says Denise McLain, a Gallup senior consultant. "Companies are asking more and more of their employees. They're taking away staff, they're taking away inventory, they're even taking away hours. So when you think about asking people to do so much more with so much less, they need something in return. And recognition is one of the things that can help with that."

At the same time, scores on several other Q12 items dropped significantly. Employees may have issues with clarity of expectations, for example. "As the economy changes, layoffs happen, and people change their roles," Harter says, which could explain the lower scores on the "knowing what's expected" item. "There is a lack of certainty about the future, and managers may have to continually clarify expectations to counter that during these times."

The research also revealed lower scores on four other Q12 items: talking about progress, opportunities to learn and grow, a connection with the mission of the company, and the opportunity to do what I do best. Managers might want to put more emphasis on these items to help employees stay engaged and productive, Harter suggests.

Effects on employee well-being

Gallup also asked employed Americans about their job status and well-being. Based on their responses to questions about their life, their well-being was classified as "thriving" (strong, consistent, and progressing), "struggling" (moderate or inconsistent), or "suffering" (at high risk).

The study found that changes in job status can affect people's perceptions of their well-being. The vast majority of workers (93%) were employed full time in July 2008 and were still employed full time in March 2009. Among these workers, the percentage with thriving well-being dropped two percentage points (from 53% to 51%) over this time frame. Among the 4% of workers who experienced a change in job status from full time to part time from July 2008 to March 2009, the percentage with thriving well-being dropped three percentage points (from 46% to 43%). But the percentage with thriving well-being dropped dramatically among the 3% of workers who went from being employed full time to being unemployed: from 37% to 29%, or eight percentage points.

Changes in Job Status Affect Wellbeing

Workers' perception of their well-being also differed depending on their engagement level. In terms of their well-being, among engaged workers, 60% were thriving, 37% were struggling, and only 3% were suffering. Among workers who were not engaged, 47% were thriving and 48% were struggling, while 5% were suffering. Actively disengaged workers, on the other hand, showed much higher percentages of suffering and struggling well-being levels: only 28% were thriving, while 60% were struggling and 12% were suffering.

Effect of Engagement of Employee Wellbeing

Long road back

The more engaged workers are, the more productive they are and the more secure they are. It's a cycle that Emily Wright, the consumer marketing manager, is experiencing right now. After being out of work for a year, she got a similar marketing job. That job, however, requires a 200-mile daily commute and offers a 40% pay cut for work she mastered a decade ago. "But they need me here. And I'm going to take this company to a whole other level."

Jennifer Robison is a Senior Editor at Gallup.

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