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What Really Matters When Trying to Boost Employee Engagement

Through her company Jennifer Brown Consulting, Jennifer Brown has designed workplace strategies adopted by some of the world’s biggest companies and nonprofits. She shared the most effective ways to boost employee engagement and well-being.

Jennifer Brown

Founder and CEO, Jennifer Brown Consulting

Why is employee engagement so important today for overall business success?

Seventy percent of employed adults say work is a significant source of stress in their lives, which is higher than the portion of adults who cited this as a stressor in the 2019 survey (64 percent).

Gallup analytics are finding unprecedented spikes in daily worry and stress, while overall percentages of people “thriving” have dropped to Great Recession-era lows. Forbes reports that disengaged employees in the United States cost companies $550 billion a year.

The Gallup Center on Black Voices finds that about 1 in 4 Black and Hispanic employees in the United States report having been discriminated against at work in the past year.

What challenges have you seen companies face during this time of working from home?

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, of the workers who left the labor force in September 2020, 80 percent were women, including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 Black women. That’s four times more women than men dropping out of the labor force. 

We’ve effectively lost 32 years of progress overnight — the percentage of American women working is the lowest it’s been since 1988. The impact could be devastating for families, for companies, and for generations to come.

58 percent of employees report burnout, up from 45 percent in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a national poll by Eagle Hill Consulting. Based on analysis by McKinsey, COVID-19 could result in a potential 50 percent increase in the prevalence of behavioral health conditions. 

A McKinsey survey of approximately 1,000 employers found that 90 percent reported that the COVID-19 crisis was affecting the behavioral health and often the productivity of their workforce. Of the parents working from home without child care, 56 percent report finding the situation difficult to navigate successfully.

What are some key ways employers can boost employee engagement and where has it made a real impact?

Leaders who have communicated openly and been transparent about the challenges COVID presents have seen increased engagement. According to a recent McKinsey report, “trust in leadership” accounted for a 48 percent increase in engagement. 

Compared with respondents who are dissatisfied with their organizations’ responses, those who say their organizations have responded particularly well are four times more likely to be engaged and six times more likely to report a positive state of well-being.

Companies that are giving employees “air time” through town halls, pulse surveys, and safe space forums to voice concerns and share perspectives around issues including race/ethnicity, religion, and politics have increased engagement.

Sixty percent of employees report that the topic of the U.S. presidential election has negatively impacted their ability to get work done. Three in 10 U.S. employees report that the presidential election has led them to argue about politics with co-workers, while 4 in 10 report they have avoided talking to or working with a co-worker because of their political views.

Gartner research indicates that organizations that effectively address employee reactions can boost their employees’ ability to focus at work during disruption by 5 percent. Not doing so can actually result in a 21 percent decrease in focus.

Connect employees with purpose. McKinsey found that respondents who indicate they are “living their purpose” at work had four times higher engagement and five times higher well-being. This particular experience element showed the greatest potential for improvement: Only one-third of respondents believe their organizations strongly connect actions to purpose.

It’s important to lead with empathy. According to a 2019 Workplace Empathy Study, 90 percent of all employees believe empathy is important in the workplace, and 8 in 10 are willing to leave an employer who isn’t empathetic. In a recent Business Solver survey of 150 CEOs, over 80 percent recognized empathy as key to success.

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