2 Finding meaning and engagement in work
You will no doubt have found from the previous section that most people who have worked in different jobs in different sectors will have different experiences of employee engagement. Moreover, as we progress in our career and our lives change, we often find our own expectations about how we want to engage in our work also change. It is certainly not possible to identify a single set of assumptions and practices about employee engagement that are universally applicable.
No doubt there are a number of issues which keep you engaged in your job. It is likely that financial reward is an important factor. The nature of the work itself is significant, as are social factors derived from the people with whom you are working. You might identify with the organisation that you are working for and wish to contribute to its objectives. You might have professional attachments that are more important than organisational identifications or, conversely, you may work in an area for particular personal or family reasons. There is a strong diversity of reasons why people engage with their jobs.
People bring meaning to and take meaning from their work. We might consider how our individual identities are influenced by our work. For example, we often ask, when introduced to someone for the first time, ‘What do you do?’ Why do we ask this? What conclusions do we draw from the answer?
Clearly for many work is more than a means of simply paying the bills, it takes a major role in making them who they are. On the other hand, we must also recognise that for some people work offers only toil and drudgery and can produce both physical and mental pain.
It is because of this diversity of purpose that building employee engagement is problematic. Managers must make strategic choices about how to engage employees in the hope of winning their commitment and encouraging them to expend discretionary effort in their work. But it is important to recognise that any such interventions will depend on an understanding of the meanings that people bring to, and derive from, their work. These meanings are unlikely to be fixed but they represent the reasons why and how people work, and the consequences of their work for their sense of self-identity. The relationship that individuals have with their work is likely to change as their circumstances change.
It is naïve to consider engagement independently from this context. We must recognise that the nature of employment and the different relationships that individuals have with their work are central to understanding, and influencing, their engagement with this work.
In the following set of activities we consider the different meanings that individuals can derive from work.