Emotional Salary is the non-financial or emotional gains we obtain from working that motivate us, change our perception of work and lead to personal and professional development.

Take our Emotional Salary Barometer™

Are we witnessing the death of employee engagement?

We’re all familiar with the statistics. According to research from Gallup, 85% of employees worldwide are not engaged in their job. Additionally, 71% of employees in Western Europe are not engaged (2017 Gallup State of the Global Workplace survey). Yet, according to a Harvard Business Review study, 71% of managers feel employee engagement is one of the most important factors in overall organisational success.

So, what’s going wrong?

What exactly do we mean by employee engagement?


There is some variation on what employee engagement is. The “grandfather” of employee engagement William A. Kahn, viewed it in terms of how employees interact with their work roles and ‘express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally’, describing an internal state relating to behaviour such as discretionary effort or ‘going the extra mile’.

Gallup, on the other hand, considers it to be the extent to which employees are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.

Employee Engagement vs. Job Satisfaction 

Job satisfaction is a very important factor in terms of employee engagement. Whereas job satisfaction relates more in terms of employees’ perception of the quality of their jobs and whether they are personally happy with their jobs, The Society for Human Resource Management suggests employee engagement has more to do with whether the employee is actively involved in advancing organisational goals.

Before beginning any employee engagement process, it is essential that the organisation is clear and precise about what they want to measure. They should also be confident in how they plan to measure it, so they don’t waste time or money.

three people on sofa holding emoji signs

Employee Engagement is dead – long live employee experience!


The last few years have seen a move away from discussing employee engagement and a shift towards employee experience. But is there really a difference?

Some point towards the paternalistic, top-down focus of engagement and contrast this to the tangible nature of simply measuring employee experience. They argue that engagement is the outcome of measuring employee experience.

Employee experience measures the total sum of employees’ experiences at work – the cultural, technological and physical.

McKinsey suggests, however, that employee experience is the evolved form of employee engagement which defines how organisations should interact with their people. It too sees employee experience as a move away from the paternalistic towards a more human-centred interaction. This “shifts the relationship to one that ignites employees with enthusiasm and empowers them to create experiences they desire”.

This seems like a logical approach to me. I’ve never been fond of the idea that companies are full of passive employees waiting to be engaged by the organisation.

Other criticisms of employee engagement point to the silo approach. This focuses on the elements of engagement in a piecemeal fashion (wellness, productivity, culture and recruitment and retention). They argue for a stronger focus on long-term strategy.

Josh Bersin at Deloitte calls for more of a focus on building an irresistible organisation. He points to the argument that “the balance of power has shifted from employer to employee, forcing business leaders to learn how to build an organization that engages employees as sensitive, passionate, creative contributors”. I would love to believe that this is true, but I think that the fact that engagement levels are so low indicates that we’re not quite there yet.

Young boy running through sprinklers laughing

And let’s throw happiness into the mix.


A LinkedIn search for the job title “Chief Happiness Officer” gathers over half a million results.

For many years, happiness at work was seen purely as a by-product of a positive culture. However, the research on the relationship between happy employees and organisational success has now started to be taken seriously.

In a recent study of BT workers, researchers found conclusive evidence of the link between happiness and increased productivity. So, does this mean we should substitute engaged employees for happy employees?

Does happiness lead to engagement or does engagement lead to happiness? To a certain extent, it depends on how you define engagement.

A key element in most of the definitions of employee engagement is the concept of discretionary effort or the enthusiasm and commitment to the organisation. However, most definitions of happiness at work focus solely on the enjoyment of work.

There are some convincing arguments as to why happiness at work is easier for organisations to focus on:

  • Whilst engagement makes a lot of sense to management, it may be harder to sell to employees, who may view it as solely for the benefit of the organisation.
  • It is difficult to have happiness without engagement as engagement tends to be a natural consequence of happy employees.
  • There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that happy employees are more productive and creative.


The reality is that engagement and happiness are very closely interlinked and you cannot ignore either. But that leads to an interesting question, who is, therefore, responsible for it?

small wooden square building blocks stacked in a pyramid

Whose responsibility is it anyway?


Employee engagement has traditionally fallen to HR Departments. With the shift towards employee experience, we’re starting to see the emergence of employee experience departments. Some fall within the remit of HR, whereas others are cross-functional teams or led by marketing professionals. Some companies have fully integrated the responsibility for engagement within the leadership of the organisation.

Research suggests that engagement decreases with length of service in the organisation. The further away you are from the top, the less likely you are to be engaged. This is considered to be a strong argument for shifting the focus of employee engagement to individual managers. Regardless of who is responsible for the function, it must be considered a priority within any organisation.

Some of the issues around engagement are that we are not involving employees enough. Organisations need to empower employees to participate fully in the engagement question. Simply asking them a set of questions on a regular basis is not sufficient, whether we frame it in terms of employee engagement, employee experience or happiness.

Employees need a convincing answer to the question, “what’s in it for me?” We must ensure that there is something of value for employees and shift more of the responsibility to them. This will mean organisations may need to create an internal culture to support this.

We have already seen the circular nature of the relationship between engagement and happiness. We don’t seem to have a problem accepting that we are responsible for our own happiness, so surely it follows that we need to take some responsibility for our own engagement?

Man and women fitting two jigsaw pieces on wooden desk

Does the term or where it fits really matter? Isn’t it about what we do with it?


It’s a bit like the debate about replacing the term Human Resources with People (and if you’ve been around as long as I have you’ll remember the Personnel to Human Resources debate).

There may be some good arguments for the change, but if we only focus on that, then we’re missing the point, which is that regardless of what we call it, we’re still failing. We still have large numbers of employees in organisations who are not engaged, whose experience is not positive, or who are not happy at work. If the issue doesn’t seem to be that we’re not measuring it, then what exactly is it?

There are two main problems:

1| You’ve heard the expression “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”? Well, the time has come for us to figure out how.

Thankfully, nowadays we are working in increasingly diverse environments. Aside from the diversity of cultural, racial, religious, gender, sexual preference and disability differences, we have multiple generations working and a huge number of workers with caring responsibilities for either children or parents.

The challenge in this is that we have hugely diverse employee groups with very different priorities, expectations and motivations. This means that in terms of what we offer our employees, we have to ensure that everybody is represented when we’re thinking about employee engagement, experience and happiness.

2| Secondly, most organisations are simply not taking it seriously enough or are expecting too much from too little effort. It’s not easy or quick. It’s not about undertaking engagement surveys on a regular basis, or setting up an employee experience team. It’s not even about improving communication, or utilising real-time people analytics.

We need an organisation-wide integrated approach with a long-term strategic plan and, in many cases, significant cultural change. We need to create a culture whereby employees can see the value in taking more responsibility for their own engagement.

Man checking a box white paper

So is employee engagement really dead?


Not necessarily, but organisations must first find ways to empower employees into fully participating in the process. They must ensure that employees believe it is valuable for them to do so, otherwise, engagement scores will remain low.

Our mission links in with this by aiming to redefine work by changing the way people think about theirs. We want everyone to recognise the emotional value they get from working and encourage them to take responsibility for receiving more of what is important to them.

One of the ways we do this is by working with organisations to help them understand the importance of Emotional Salary and how they can utilise our Emotional Salary Barometer to support their People goals.

Contact us here or send us a message at [email protected] to talk about how the ESB can work for your business.


Redefine YOUR work!


One thought on “Are we witnessing the death of employee engagement?

Leave a Reply


  Sign up to receive regular updates, tips, inspiration and strategies related to Emotional Salary direct to your inbox.