Crunching through the gears of employee engagement

All organisations rely on their people for success. This is a mind-numbingly obvious statement - but also an exceptionally complex one when it comes to making real changes to how people think, feel and engage with their actual day-to-day work. We know that if employees are more committed to their employer, positive about their role and motivated to give more of themselves, then organisations do better. Some studies have suggested that improving employee engagement within the UK to match the levels seen in the top tier of high performing countries could add £25.8 billion to the economy.

Since the financial crisis in 2008 there has been more interest in employee engagement. Both private and public sector employers have had to deal with austerity and do more with less. This has led to more demands on employees across sectors. For example, the ‘Engage for Success’ initiative has played an important part in gaining attention for employee engagement. This group of business school thinkers and senior HR professionals has worked to inspire the development of a wider movement through the sharing of good practice around what works to create a more committed, happier and engaged workforce. There have been other schemes, like the business-led Be the Business, which have all emphasised people management and employee engagement as a key to unlocking productivity.

In many ways these are long-standing problems rather than a post-2008 phenomenon. Traditionally, people have been expected to manage after having been promoted on the basis of other capabilities. When things go wrong there are not always support structures so relationships and the culture turn sour. But problems with management and employee engagement has taken on a modern flavour. Some organisation have difficulties making sure that the introduction of new technologies is accompanied by newer, more appropriate ways of working. The changes are just added on to traditional attitudes and management practices. There isn’t the necessary investment in training and development so the new technology, rather than being followed by growth, is followed by a breakdown in communication and unhappy staff.

Despite a general desire to improve employee engagement, it is difficult to find a substantial body of evidence on how to impact productivity. We want to understand more about what is happening and what is inhibiting progress. To do so, there are many lessons to be learned from what initiatives have been taken on by the UK’s largest employer, the NHS.

Healthy attitudes

When it comes to the NHS, levels of employee engagement really do become life and death. Staff wrestle with ongoing challenges; tightened resources and new service pressures which threaten consistent levels of staff engagement. We explored the role of employee engagement in the organisation, what the term meant to people, why it mattered in terms of patient care and quality, and whether the case for better employee engagement had been made as effectively as it could have been.

A basis for measuring, monitoring and benchmarking engagement levels across the sector were put in place since 2009. Looking at figures from the NHS Staff Survey, employees have been feeling more engaged since 2012. But a closer examination shows clear variation in engagement levels both between and within NHS Trusts - suggesting that in reality the story isn’t as simple as it might appear. Relying on averages from staff survey responses can’t be relied on as evidence of overall success.

We found a lack of consensus when it came to defining what employee engagement actually is and looked like. For example, executive staff defined employee engagement strategically, in line with how engagement is measured in the NHS staff survey. For frontline staff, engagement primarily centred around their role in the delivery of high quality patient care and working closely with colleagues to ensure that they were not letting down their team. Middle managers saw engagement as a core part of effectively developing the employment relationship and achieving two-way communication. The formal measures in the survey didn’t appear to take into account what the majority of NHS staff considered employee engagement to be. As a result, local teams were having to think about supplementing the survey with wider intelligence to get a fuller picture of how employees were feeling.

Unpacking engagement

Although surveys are a helpful tool, the danger is that the survey becomes the strategy. As a result, managers are given the task of ‘getting the scores up’, so a ‘teaching to the test’ approach may be taken up.

The work with the NHS may have involved a very specific set of circumstances and pressures, but we have found that many of the challenges and concerns apply to organisations in general. For example, when talking to managers at a range of levels throughout the manufacturing sector (Performance Through People) there was evidence of the same issues and of there being similar variation in engagement across different sites and divisions.

What makes for good employee engagement is an all-round positive experience. There is a whole package of HR and management practices, work allocation, ensuring that staff are being listened to, flexibility, feedback, access to training and development and giving people the space to take stock and make a positive contribution. It is about getting all the myriad of interconnected parts of a work environment right and the underpinning for this is good management practice.

Employee engagement is a multi-dimensional problem – there is no silver bullet – it is based on creating a positive, well-managed environment where people feel able to have open conversations, to talk about problems, and know they will be understood and supported.


Lesley Giles is the Director of the Work Foundation, the leading provider of analysis, evaluation, policy advice and know-how in the UK and beyond. Former Deputy Director of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Lesley has substantial experience within government working in Department for Education and Employment; the Employment Service and the Cabinet Office, and a particular focus on supporting business-led action in skills and employment issues.

The ‘Solving the Employee Engagement Puzzle in the NHS: making a better case for action’ report produced by Zofia Bajorek, Lesley Giles and Karen Steadman alongside partners at RAND Europe and The Point of Care Foundation, can be downloaded from

Another version of this article was first published in 'Fifty Four Degrees', the Lancaster University Management School magazine.