Earlier this week there was a terrific article in the DealBook section of the New York Times on Employee Engagement and Burnout by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
The premise of the article is that many companies measure employee engagement by their (the employees') willingness to go above and beyond and that in turn leads to burnout.
It's clear in those organisations that the onus is on the employees to feel engaged and committed. At many of the best performing companies it's the other way around - the onus is on the employer to take care of the well-being of their employees.
Here's some interesting statistics from that article:
Companies in which employees reported feeling well taken care of - including not working too many hours - had twice the operating profit margins of those with traditionally engaged employees, and three times the profit levels of those with the least engaged employees.
To us it's all a matter of expectations: if there is an expectation that employees should go above and beyond without a concomitant balance in the way they are compensated (and I'm not talking money here) then that expectation will inevitably lead to increased levels of stress which has to lead to poor performance.
Covert expectations are the worst - the things employees aren't told but learn through the grapevine and through watching the behaviour of their peers. This is the place where bad habits get reinforced, where people feel obliged to work on weekends and even when they're in the pub or at their daughter's football practise will keep their smartphone turned on and will take calls and answer emails.
Employers take advantage of this 'I'm available' culture by giving people work on Friday afternoon with an expectation that it will be done by Monday and employees get the message that it's not OK to say 'No'.
And what about the whole issue of staying late? Of course there are times in every company or department when deadlines put pressure on everyone and it's 'all hands to the pump'. Those can actually be exciting, collaborative, creative times when everyone feels they are contributing and putting in long hours is part of the excitement.
When it's the expectation that's another thing altogether.
We worked with a company where the culture was that no one wanted to be seen to be the first to leave at the end of the day. One delegate said her home life was really suffering because she was getting home later and later and later because she felt she had to prove her commitment over and over again and would stay till 10 o'clock most nights. Sure enough, six months of this led to some serious 'cat kicking' where she took out her frustrations out on her husband. She loved the company and its mission but eventually got fed up with the toll it was taking and left.
The startling thing about this woman is that she was one of the Directors. She was complicit in creating and bolstering the unhealthy culture in the company and sadly she isn't alone.
In another company one of the senior managers complained that his staff never took their lunch hours and he said it was having an impact on productivity. We pointed out that he never took a lunch hour and his team were simply mirroring his behaviour. Talk about a small change for a big impact (one of Impact Factory's core tenets); he started taking lunch so everyone else did too.
The consequences of unhealthy corporate cultures are real: people become much less productive, they get ill, they get cranky and grumpy; their behaviour gets erratic and they leave or are made redundant or get overlooked for promotion. Not only that, because these consequences are ignored, swept under the carpet, not given the attention they require, there is no imperative for these unhealthy cultures to change.
Changing the status quo is challenging. However, if companies sincerely want their employees engaged, they have to make a visible effort to do things differently - the more visible the change, the more genuinely involved they will be.
By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory