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Employment relations and employee engagement
Employment relations and employee engagement

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1.4 Engagement and disengagement

Existing literature and research makes a distinction made between engagement (regarded as a positive state for both self and work performance) and disengagement (regarded as a negative state). This binary construction does not seem to allow for a ‘neutral’ state for employees and encourages an either/or categorisation.

Engagement is defined by the extent to which people employ physical, cognitive and emotional degrees of themselves in their work. Engaged employees thus express their ‘authentic’ selves through physical involvement, cognitive awareness and emotional connections (Truss et al., 2013). Conversely, disengaged employees ‘uncouple’ themselves from their roles, suppressing personal involvement in physical, cognitive and emotional aspects of work.

Engaged workers are generally considered to be ‘happy productive workers’. For example, it has been suggested that ‘engaged employees often experience positive emotions, including happiness, joy, and enthusiasm; experience better health; create their own job and personal resources; and transfer their engagement to others’ (Bakker and Demerouti, 2008, p. 215). From this perspective it is difficult to see engagement as anything other than good for both employees and organisations.

Although low levels of engagement, or disengagement, have been viewed within the literature as problematic: for individuals, in that they have been associated with impaired well-being, and for organisations, as they are linked with low levels of performance. Another view is that high levels of engagement may be equally problematic; according to George (2011, p. 53), ‘the costs of high work engagement for employees deserve far greater attention than they have received to date and question to what extent high engagement is always such a positive experience for employees’.

George goes on to argue that rising levels of productivity are associated with work intensification and income inequality, and questions the legitimacy of organisations deliberately soliciting high engagement levels but failing to reward workers appropriately. An additional problem is the probability of impaired work–life balance for engaged workers. Against this background, engagement may not always be uniformly beneficial to employees.

There is thus some concern over the overwhelmingly positive perspective on employee engagement and even its proponents increasingly acknowledge it might have a ‘dark side’. In particular there is concern about the possibility of detrimental effects (for both individuals and organisations) of over-engagement (Bakker et al., 2011). Over-engagement can be defined as occurring when ‘highly-engaged workers become exceedingly involved in their work activities’ (Poulsen et al., 2014, p. 161), to the exclusion of other non-work activities. Presenteeism, the tendency to spend longer in the workplace than is necessary for the completion of work activity, has also been identified as a form of over-engagement (Griffiths and Karanika-Murray, 2012).

Over time, over-engagement has been linked to issues of workaholism (a psychological addiction to work resulting from extreme and prolonged over-engagement) and burnout (Griffiths and Karanika-Murray, 2012).

Some research has explored this relationship between employment engagement and burnout. In their review of the literature on burnout and the emergence of engagement, Maslach et al. (2001) describe how, up until the 1990s, work psychology had been predominantly concerned with negative states at work, like stress. They suggest that ‘engagement’ could be used as an alternative positive construction to ‘burnout’ (see Table 1).

Table 1: Comparing engagement and burnout
Positive − engagementNegative − burnout
(Based on Maslach et al., 2001)

This thinking was part of the turn to positive psychology and indicated an increased interest in employee well-being. This move was also reflected in the emergence of commitment rather than control approaches to HRM (Wall and Wood, 2005) and increased emphasis on mutual benefits for individuals and organisations from a ‘happy productive worker’.

Despite such concerns, employee engagement has developed into a considerable industry in its own right (Welbourne et al., 2011; Keenoy et al., 2014; Warren, 2009). In Activity 1 we explore a challenging view on the positive impact of engagement at work.

Activity 1

Timing: About 90 minutes

In order to reflect on the meaning of employee engagement, a good idea is to keep a personal diary (over 3−5 days, which can be consecutive or over a longer period if you prefer. You do not need to write much, perhaps 200−300 words per day, though of course you may write more if you wish. Simply take 10−15 minutes at the end of each day to:

  • Identify any feelings of engagement or burnout.
  • Identify any patterns in when or why you felt more or less engaged.
  • On reflection, how do you feel about the positive feelings of engagement that you noted in your diary?
  • On reflection, how do you feel about the negative feelings of burnout that you noted in your diary?


Warren (2009) usefully draws attention to the commercialisation of engagement within the broader framework of positive psychology at work. This is linked to notions of continuous improvement and self-advancement at both organisational and individual levels. She warns against assuming that ‘feeling good’ is positive for the self and that ‘feeling bad’ is always a negative experience.

Your diary will be personal to you and include reflections that you might find useful to add to your personal development record. You might also want to return to this as we continue to explore the concept of employee engagement and the challenges it provides for HRM practice in the following sections.