Employee engagement and stress

The links between levels of employee engagement and stress

There is a correlation between low employee engagement and high stress levelsMental Health Week this month got me thinking about stress in the workplace and generally what can compromise psychological well-being at work.

Recent research

This coincided with me reading the recently published Exploring Internal Communication (3rd edition), which discusses a number of research studies showing a correlation between higher levels of stress and a disengaged workforce. For example, in one study over half of disengaged employees (54%) said that work has a negative effect on their health as opposed to only 12% of engaged employees. Engaged employees also show higher levels of well-being all round; they are more likely to enjoy work, cope with work-related problems and be able to get to sleep easily.

CIPD findings suggest that those who are absorbed in their work are almost three times as likely to have six key positive emotions at work (enthusiasm, cheerfulness, optimism, contentment, to feel calm and relaxed) as negative ones (feeling miserable, worried, depressed, gloomy, tense or uneasy).  1

It’s common sense really that negative feelings about work, or a lack of enthusiasm for it, are going to increase stress levels. Unhappy workers may detach from their workplace to help themselves cope. This is unlikely to lead to them going that extra mile for their organisation. Alternatively, they may be conscientious but reduced mental well-being means that outputs and outcomes don't equate to the effort they feel they have put in.

Psychological problems can be much lower level than full-blown burn-out, depression or anxiety. However, they can still have quite an insidious impact.

Causes of workplace stress

Here are some major culprits in reducing engagement and compromising psychological health for employees.

  • They are unclear where the organisation is headed and their role within it
  • Vague job responsibilities which can cause ambiguities and tensions
  • A feeling that the organisation is not sharing important information at the right time and that leaders are not being straight with staff – a lack of trust
  • Not believing that employee views are invited, valued and acted upon. Employees may feel that they have knowledge, insights and expertise on a particular topic, but all the decisions and discussions are taking place within another arena
  • The elephant in the room along with the head in the sand – a major tension or unresolved issue between individuals, within teams or between departments that is allowed to fester to keep the ‘peace’
  • A lot of responsibility but a lack of authority – probably quite common in line managers. Having to paper over the cracks but not having the freedom to actually resolve the issue for good
  • An inaccessible boss who regularly gives off that ‘not now’ vibe – leading to a simultaneously suffering in silence and moaning behind the scenes culture
  • Poor working environment – layout, facilities, temperature, noise. Not suited to the task in hand
  • Leaders putting an unrealistically rosy glow on trying times – like the problems facing employees don’t exist or are trivial
  • Failure to give praise where it is due
  • Failure to give constructive feedback – for example, focusing on personality rather than actual activities and behaviour

Of course, the organisation isn't always to blame for an individual's negativity or unhappiness – it may be wholly or largely down to the attitude of the individual concerned.

For example, they may not like their job but also be unmotivated to find something that would suit them better. However, a constructive, fair and timely response is more likely to put them on the right track – even if that means leaving the organisation. It will also minimise the risk of the situation impacting negatively on their work colleagues.

The right conditions for employee engagement

In summary, employees are more likely to remain psychologically healthy in the workplace if they have the following:

  1. The right information at the right time
  2. A voice
  3. An organisation they feel they can trust
  4. The right qualities in leaders – fair, honest, accessible, good communicators. Possessing emotional intelligence – so they can read, test their understanding of and act on situations at the right time, even where employees are not initially volunteering very much information. Leaders need to be sensitive to when members of their team are acting differently.

Do you have any thoughts on factors that crank up stress in the workplace?



1. All these separate studies are referenced in Rayton et al (2012) The Evidence: produced by the Employee Engagement Task Force ‘Nailing the evidence’ work group (Engage for Success). This document refers to a number of studies which consider the links between factors such as organisational productivity and employee well-being.


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