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Work engagement, job quality, wellbeing and innovation post-COVID – what can employers do?

By Colin Lindsay - Posted on 26 June 2020

Professor Colin Lindsay blogs on the importance of good job design to employee engagement, wellbeing and innovation, and how the engagement agenda has never been more important as businesses transition towards a ‘new normal’ post-COVID-19.

Businesses across the UK share an aspiration to bounce back after the COVID-19 crisis and get back to delivering value for customers and good jobs for employees. Promoting employee engagement (or ‘work engagement’) is important to delivering wellbeing for employees and improved innovation and performance for businesses.

As part of the ‘PrOPEL Hub’ and ‘Management Practices for Employee Engagement’ initiatives, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, our team at Strathclyde is working with UK companies to explore the linkages between jobs, work engagement and a crucial innovation outcome sought be employers – what we call ‘innovative work behaviours’ among employees.

Some critics have argued that engagement has become a buzzword – cover for employers reluctant to do the hard work of improving jobs, pay and conditions. So what is work engagement and how solid is the evidence base that action on engagement can deliver positive outcomes for employees and businesses?

It is true that the ‘engagement agenda’ has become somewhat ubiquitous, and the term has been used with reference to a range of meanings. But there is a decent evidence base that levels of ‘work engagement’ are important predictors of performance and wellbeing. Work engagement has been defined as ‘a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication, and absorption’. This way of capturing engagement – developed by Wilmar Schaufeli and colleagues in the early 2000s – asks fundamental questions about feelings of resilience and energy (the vigour bit), whether employees find jobs meaningful (dedication) and if they are happy and immersed in interesting work (absorption).

There is good evidence that higher levels of engagement are associated with positive wellbeing outcomes for employees and some signs that they are also bottom-line benefits for companies. One area of performance that there is increasing interest in is innovation – are more engaged workers more likely to innovate and solve problems in the workplace? Here the evidence is a bit more limited, but there are signs that higher levels of engagement can support employees’ innovative work behaviours – ‘the intentional proposal and application of novel and improved ideas, processes, practices, and policies aimed at organisational effectiveness, business success, and long-term sustainability’. A new study by Kibum Kwon and Taesung Kim in Human Resource Management Review journal concludes that ‘engaged employees are more likely to behave innovatively by activating coping strategies to deal with challenges’. But we need to strengthen the evidence base on what works in supporting employees to innovate and also enhancing their wellbeing.

What sort of things should employers be thinking about to promote engagement and innovation? Our research focuses on the importance of job quality. Two members of our research team – professors Evangelia Demerouti and Arnold Bakker – have led the development of the Job Demands-Resources Model. This is a way of thinking about job quality that centres on the need to balance, on the one hand, ‘job demands’ such as workload, emotional demands, interpersonal conflict, and on the other hand, ‘job resources’ – the elements of good job quality that help people to cope with the demands of the workplace, like job control, task variety, development opportunities and effective feedback. Evangelia, Arnold and their colleagues have developed an impressive evidence base that suggests that these elements of job quality can feed into engagement and wellbeing. As I have already said, there is also some evidence that higher engagement equals more innovation, but we need more information on how these processes work.

Which brings us back to the major research programme that the University of Strathclyde is leading to arrive at new insights on these issues. We will be working with thirty companies to explore linkages between job quality, work engagement and wellbeing, and crucially, adding to the evidence on how we can support employees to innovate.

Of course, these are uniquely challenging times for HR practitioners and business leaders, and in the immediate term the emphasis is likely to be on business survival and retaining or exiting people from the organisation as necessary. But it might also be a good time for businesses to reflect on their workplace practices – as we move towards a ‘new normal’ post-COVID-19, employers have an opportunity to think about improving job quality to benefit people and performance. If your business would like to work with our at team at the Scottish Centre for Employment Research at Strathclyde Business School we would be keen to hear from you.

To find out more about the research, contact Professor Colin Lindsay at the University of Strathclyde - colin.lindsay@strath.ac.uk



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