Report Summary: The drivers of employee engagement

The drivers of employee engagementEngagement is big in the HR consultancy market, yet there is a dearth of academic research in this area. IES research suggests that engagement is more than a passing fad – it brings clear business benefits.

Engagement is seen, by the UK company that is furthest advanced in using it, as bringing real competitive advantage. However, raising engagement levels, and maintaining them, takes time, effort, commitment and investment – it is not for the half-hearted.

What is employee engagement?

The first step in our research was to investigate what HR professionals understood or meant when they used the term ‘engagement’. A clear view of the behaviours demonstrated by the engaged employee emerged:

  • belief in the organisation
  • desire to work to make things better
  • understanding of business context and the ‘bigger picture’
  • respectful of, and helpful to, colleagues
  • willingness to ‘go the extra mile’
  • keeping up to date with developments in the field.

Engagement has clear overlaps with the more exhaustively researched concepts of commitment and organisational citizenship behaviour, but there are also differences. In particular, engagement is two-way: organisations must work to engage the employee, who in turn has a choice about the level of engagement to offer the employer.

IES defines employee engagement as:

‘a positive attitude held by the employee towards the organisation and its values. An engaged employee is aware of business context, and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organisation. The organisation must work to develop and nurture engagement, which requires a two-way relationship between employer and employee.’

Measuring engagement

Our analysis used data from IES’s 2003 attitude survey of over 10,000 employees in 14 organisations in the NHS. Twelve attitude statements representing engagement were tested; all were found to ‘sit together’ reliably, to comprise a single indicator of engagement. Although tested within the NHS, the statements are not NHS-specific; they can be transferred to other organisations and sectors. If attitude survey space is at a premium, and organisations feel unable to include 12 statements, an engagement subset of five statements can be used instead. This subset can be safely used, as it represents the essence of engagement and has been tested for reliability. Positive responses to the engagement statements indicate:

  • a positive attitude towards, and pride in, the organisation
  • belief in the organisation’s products/services
  • a perception that the organisation enables the employee to perform well
  • a willingness to behave altruistically and be a good team player
  • an understanding of the bigger picture and a willingness to go beyond the requirements of the job.

Engagement challenges

Further in-depth analysis of our NHS case study data revealed that engagement levels can vary, in association with a variety of personal and job characteristics and with experiences at work. Some key findings were:

  • engagement levels decline as employees get older – until they reach the oldest group (60 plus), where levels suddenly rise, and show this oldest group to be the most engaged of all
  • minority ethnic respondents have higher engagement levels than their white colleagues
  • managers and professionals tend to have higher engagement levels than their colleagues in supporting roles, although people in the latter group appear to owe greater loyalty to their profession than to the organisation in which they practise their craft
  • engagement levels decline as length of service increases
  • having an accident or an injury at work, or experiencing harassment (particularly if the manager is the source of the harassment) both have a big negative impact on engagement
  • employees who have a personal development plan, and who have received a formal performance appraisal within the past year, have significantly higher engagement levels than those who have not.

The above findings show that organisations need to work hard to prevent, and minimise the impact of, bad experiences. They also need to ensure that employees’ development needs (including the special needs of professionals) are taken seriously; pay attention to, and value the roles of, support staff; and to maintain the interest of longer-serving employees. The relatively high levels of engagement of the oldest employees, and of minority ethnic staff, suggest sources of untapped potential within some organisations.

What drives engagement?

Research shows that committed employees perform better. If we accept that engagement, as many believe, is ‘one step up’ from commitment, it is clearly in the organisation’s interests to understand the drivers of engagement. Analysis of the NHS case study data indicates that opinions about, and experiences of, many aspects of working life are strongly correlated with engagement levels. However, the strongest driver of all is a sense of feeling valued and involved. This has several key components:

  • involvement in decision making
  • the extent to which employees feel able to voice their ideas, and managers listen to these views, and value employees’ contributions
  • the opportunities employees have to develop their jobs
  • the extent to which the organisation is concerned for employees’ health and wellbeing.

The line manager clearly has a very important role in fostering employees’ sense of involvement and value – an observation that is completely consistent with IES’s research in many different areas of HR practice and employment, all of which point to the critical importance of the employee-manager relationship.

IES’s diagnostic tool

The IES diagnostic tool

Source: IES Survey, 2003

The IES engagement model illustrates the strong link between feeling valued and involved and engagement. In addition to the model, IES offers a diagnostic tool (above), which can be used to derive organisation-specific drivers from attitude survey data. Our findings suggest that many of the drivers of engagement will be common to all organisations, regardless of sector; however, some variability is likely, and the relative strength of each driver is also likely to be contingent upon the organisation being studied.

General lessons

Attempts to raise engagement levels are likely to founder, unless the following ‘building blocks’ are in place:

  • good quality line management
  • two-way communication
  • effective internal co-operation
  • a development focus
  • commitment to employee wellbeing
  • clear, accessible HR policies and practices, to which managers at all levels are committed.

It looks easy, but of course it isn’t; it requires a huge amount of effort and continuing investment to ensure that all of these basics are in place and working well. Embarking on a drive to increase engagement levels should not be undertaken lightly, bearing in mind the ease with which engagement (like the psychological contract) can be shattered.

The study

IES research into employee engagement was promoted by the interest and involvement of several IES Research Networks Member companies. It proved more complicated than first envisaged, due to the lack of existing research in the area. IES explored the concept of engagement with member and client organisations, before embarking on original research into measuring engagement and establishing its main drivers. The database used for the research comprises 2003 attitude survey data from 14 organisations in the NHS (10,024 completed questionnaires). The full range of employee groups and job roles were represented – managerial, professional, technical and support (manual and administrative).

The full report also contains literature reviews on commitment and organisational citizenship behaviour, and a Royal Bank of Scotland case study.

The study was funded and supported by IES’s motivation, wellbeing and retention Research Network.


The report

The Drivers of Employee Engagement, Robinson D, Perryman S, Hayday S. Report 408, Institute for Employment Studies, 2004.

Hard copy: £19.95. PDF Download: £free