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Engagement at work

Author: Dr Simon Moss


When individuals feel engaged at work, a series of benefits tend to ensue. A meta-analysis of almost 8000 business units was undertaken to examine the benefits of engagement (Harter, Schmidt, & Hayes, 2002). When levels of engagement were elevated, the business unit tended to be more profitable. Customer satisfaction was high, safety was more often exemplary, and turnover of employees was reduced. Furthermore, engaged employees seem to enact more discretionary behaviors to improve the organization as well as fulfill their role more effectively (e.g., Bakker, Demerouti, & Verbeke, 2004).

Research into engagement has uncovered some key insights. For example, work engagement is distinct from workaholism (for a review, see Bakker, Schaufeli, Leiter, & Taris, 2008). That is, individuals who are engaged are very energetic, dedicated, and absorbed at work, primarily because they enjoy their role, which ultimately tends to improve their wellbeing. In contrast, workaholic individuals often feel a sense of obligation to achieve and are unable to disengage from their work, ruminating over their role almost incessantly, which can damage their wellbeing.

Many studies have examined the characteristics of the work context that promote engagement. Nevertheless, some personal characteristics can also affect engagement. For example, when individuals are optimistic about the future, engagement is more likely to ensue (Xanthopoulou, Bakker, Demerouti, & Schaufeli, 2007). Furthermore, resilience and self efficacy are also related to engagement (see Bakker, Gierveld, & Van Rijswijk, 2006 as cited in Bakker, Schaufeli, Leiter, & Taris, 2008). Individuals who perceive themselves positively are more likely to pursue roles that align to their values, called self concordance, which promotes intrinsic motivation (see Judge, Van Vianen, & De Pater, 2004) and may promote engagement at work.

Conceptualizations of engagement

The concept of engagement was popularized by Kahn (1990), who related this concept to the notion of psychological presence. According to his definition, engagement refers to the state in which individuals express their entire self--physically, cognitively, and emotionally--in their role.

Engagement and burnout

Maslach and Leiter (1997), in contrast, conceptualized engagement as the opposite of burnout. In particular, burnout comprises three key dimensions: a feeling of mental exhaustion, a cynicism about the future, and a sense of limited efficacy in professional settings. In contrast, if work is meaningful, this exhaustion is superceded by energy, cynicism is superceded by involvement, and limited efficacy is superceded by elevated efficacy. Thus, this model assumes that engagement represents energy, involvement, and efficacy.

Schaufeli, Salanova, Gonzaacutelez-Romaacute, and Bakker (2002) challenged this perspective. They argued that individuals might not feel at all exhausted, but will not necessarily experience energy. Hence, burnout and engagement, although inversely correlated, might represent independent constructs. They differentiated three facets of engagement: vigor, in which individuals experience a sense of energy and resilience, dedication, in which individuals feel enthusiastically involved in challenging and significant work, as well as absorption, in which individuals feel engrossed in their role--a more enduring form of flow.

Demerouti, Mostert, and Bakker (2010) undertook a study to examine whether or not engagement and burnout represent opposite poles of a single continuum. Participants, all of whom were employed in the construction industry, undertook a series of scales, assessing burnout, engagement, work pressure, autonomy, mental health, and organizational commitment.

Whether or not engagement and burnout represent opposite poles of a single continuum received moderate, but not definitive, support. Confirmatory factor analyses indicated that cynicism and dedication--one facet of burnout and engagement respectively--do indeed represent opposite poles of the same dimension (Demerouti, Mostert, & Bakker, 2010). However, exhaustion and vigor, although highly and inversely related to each other, seemed to represent distinct dimensions (Demerouti, Mostert, & Bakker, 2010). That is, fit improved significantly when these facets were represented as distinct factors.

The associations between these measures and the other scale also supports this conclusion. For example, autonomy and organizational commitment were positively related to cynicism but negatively related to dedication. Similarly, work pressure was negatively related to cynicism but positively related to dedication. Mental health, however, as represented by the general health questionnaire, was inversely related to cynicism but not significantly related to dedication (Demerouti, Mostert, & Bakker, 2010).

In contrast, autonomy and organizational commitment were appreciably and positively related to vigor, but not strongly related to exhaustion. Work pressure and problems with mental health often coincided with exhaustion but was not associated with vigor (Demerouti, Mostert, & Bakker, 2010). These findings are consistent with the proposition that vigor and exhaustion might correspond to distinct factors. Conceivably, unlike exhaustion, vigor partly depends on processes that underpin motivation, like a willingness to invest effort (Demerouti, Mostert, & Bakker, 2010).

Other distinctions

Furthermore, engagement is often differentiated from related, but distinct, concepts such as job involvement and organizational commitment. According to Hallberg and Schaufeli (2006), job involvement, organizational commitment, and engagement represent a sense of identification with work, but only engagement is underpinned by positive affective states--and correlates with strongly wellbeing and health.

Saks (2006) distinguished job engagement-?engagement with the immediate role or tasks--and organizational engagement--engagement with the employer. Job and organizational engagement, for example, correspond to distinct antecedents. Job engagement is related to job characteristics, like variety, whereas organizational engagement is related to the extent to which procedures are just, unbiased, accurate, and systematic.

Despite these variations in definitions, some common themes have emerged. First, work engagement seems to entail both a sense of energy as well as identification with the job or organization (for a discussion, see Macey & Schneider, 2008). For example, in the taxonomy that was developed by Schaufeli, Salanova, Gonzaacutelez-Romaacute, and Bakker (2002), vigor represents a sense of energy, whereas dedication represents a sense of identification with work. Second, according to most scholars, engagement, unlike flow, is relatively stable over time, despite minor fluctuations (Khan, 1990;; Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004).

Theories of engagement

Psychological presence

Kahn (1990, 1992) argued that engagement culminates from a state called psychological presence--a state in which the authentic, true facets of the self can be fully expressed. In this state, individuals do not need to curb their beliefs, values, thoughts, feelings, inclinations, and relationships. All of these facets of themselves are manifested in the behavior at work.

Kahn (1990) delineates three factors that promote this presence or engagement. First, when employees experience a sense of meaning in their work, this presence or engagement is more likely to ensue. That is, in some contexts, individuals feel their work relates to some broader, enduring, important, and desirable objective or value. They feel their work aligns with the aspirations they value. As a consequence, they become more inclined to dedicate their efforts to this endeavor, rather than withhold their exertion, which manifests as presence or engagement.

Second, when individuals feel that such dedication and application to their role will not culminate in undesirable or negative consequences, called psychological safety, engagement is also more likely (Kahn, 1990). That is, engagement surfaces when employees feel that problems or adversities are either unlikely or manageable.

Third, individuals can maintain this dedication and application to their work only if they can access the necessary resources, called psychological availability. That is, they need, for example, to be able to muster the necessary energy or exertion (Kahn, 1990).

May, Gilson and Harter (2004) conducted a study to examine the determinants of engagement. Consistent with these propositions, meaningfulness, psychological safety, and availability were all related to engagement, as demonstrated by a structural equation model.

Rich, Lepine, and Crawford (2010) also confirmed this theory. In particular, in their study, participants completed measures that represent the extent to which they feel the work aligns to their values, called value congruence, and their organization supports employees. Furthermore, a measure of core self evaluations, comprising self esteem, self efficacy, emotional stability, and locus of control, was also administered. In addition, they completed the various measures of engagement. Value congruence, perceived organizational support, and core self evaluations were indeed associated with engagement.

These findings confirm the three antecedents of engagement that Kahn (1990, 1992) differentiated: meaning, safety, and availability. Value congruence presumably represents the extent to which the job seems meaningful. That is, if individuals need to engage in roles that align with their aspirations and values, they perceive the job as more inviting, significant, and important. Second, perceived organizational support, arguably, represents the extent to which the environment is safe. That is, when the organization is supportive, individuals feel they are trusted and sense their wellbeing is respected. Third, core self evaluations represent confidence, increasing the likelihood that individuals feel willing and prepared to invest themselves into the role, called availability.

Social exchange

Social exchange theory, first promulgated by Emerson (1976), has been applied by Saks (2006) to explain the sources of engagement. According to social exchange theory, as individuals interact over time, they experience the need to reciprocate the support and assistance of the other person, called the norm of reciprocity (see Blau, 1983). For example, if one person helps a friend, this friend will experience an obligation to reciprocate at some time in the future, offering a form of assistance that is equal in magnitude. If this norm of reciprocity is fulfilled, a trusting and loyal relationship evolves (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005).

Saks (2006) maintained that engagement in employees might represent a form of obligation to the organization. That is, if organizations offer support to their employees, these individuals feel obliged to become cognitively, emotionally, and physically engaged in their work role. They feel they should direct constructive behaviors, such as positive attitudes, towards the organization. Consistent with this perspective, when organizations do offer support and resources, employees do indeed report elevated levels of engagement (for a review, see Saks, 2006).

Nevertheless, as Saks (2006) conceded, some forms of social support or resources do not magnify engagement. Reward and recognition, for example, are not related to engagement after perceived organizational support and other job characteristics are controlled. Furthermore, social exchange theory does not specify the mechanisms that relate individual characteristics to work engagement. Nevertheless, neuroticism and extraversion are indeed related to engagement (Langelaan, Bakker, Doornen and Schaufeli, 2006).

The job demands-resources model

The social exchange perspective, although informative, does not delineate the forms of support that foster the obligation to exchange and to demonstrate engagement. The job demands-resources model does, at least partly, redress this shortfall (see Bakker & Demerouti, 2007;; Bakker, Demerouti, de Boer, & Schaufeli, 2003;; Bakker, Demerouti, & Verbeke, 2004).

The job demands-resources model assumes that job demands, such as elevated levels of pressure, undue expectations, and conflicting requirements, tend to provoke burnout. In this context, job demands represent any facets of a role that demands sustained effort to accommodate or withstand difficulties. The effort that needs to be applied to accommodate these demands depletes energy, culminating in exhaustion (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007;; Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004).

In contrast, job resources, including autonomy, support, and feedback, can all foster engagement as well as mitigate the adverse consequences of undue job demands (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007;; Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004). By definition, resources facilitate work goals, curb job demands, or stimulate growth. Specifically, these resources can facilitate learning or elevate effort, which can temper the exhaustion that demands tend to provoke.

Many studies have demonstrated that job resources promote engagement. As Schaufeli and Bakker (2004) demonstrated, constructive feedback, social support, and coaching from supervisors--all exemplars of job resources--were positively associated with three dimensions of engagement: vigor, dedication, and absorption. Similarly, in another study, supervisor support, appreciation, information, job control, innovation, and climate--six potential resources--were also related to engagement (Bakker, Hakanen, Demerouti, & Xanthopoulou, 2007).

Other studies have also shown that job resources temper the effect of job demands on burnout. Specifically, as Bakker, Demerouti, & Euwema (2005) showed, job demands, such as work overload, emotional demands, and conflict between work and home responsibilities, usually culminate in exhaustion and cynicism. This relationship, however, diminished when resources, like autonomy, feedback, and support, were available. Thus, resources seemed to mitigate the deleterious consequences of demanding environments.

Mauno, Kinnunen, and Ruokolainen (2007) demonstrated that resources at one time predict subsequent improvements in engagement. Resources such as current levels of job control predicted future engagement after controlling current engagement. This study verified that resources can affect subsequent engagement rather than merely represent the reverse direction of causality.

Nevertheless, as de Lange, De Witte, and Notelaer (2008) argued, a cycle often ensues in which job resources promote engagement, which in turn attracts resources. Job autonomy, for example, at one time predicts subsequent engagement. Nevertheless, engagement at one time also predicts subsequent support from colleagues.

Antecedents to engagement and burnout

Self efficacy

Several studies have examined the association between self efficacy and engagement at work. Research indicates that self efficacy can both precede and follow work engagement (see Llorens, Schaufeli, Bakker, & Salanova, 2007). Presumably, self efficacy curbs doubts and other distractions, enabling individuals to become engrossed in their work. Furthermore, engagement might also offset doubts and other cognitions that impede self efficacy. Thus, self efficacy should promote engagement, which in turn should foster self efficacy, reflecting a gain spiral.

Focus on opportunities

When people feel they will be granted many work opportunities in the future, they tend to feel more engage at work. Indeed, as Schmitt, Gielnik, Zacher, and Klemann (2013) showed, when people endorse items like "My occupational future is filled with possibilities", they are more likely to feel engaged at work, even after controlling general optimism.

A belief in opportunities in the future reflects optimism towards a specific consequence rather than general optimism. Individuals are more likely to commit to the tasks they feel will generate positive consequences. Specific optimism, therefore, should promote commitment to these tasks, and this commitment should promote engagement.

Learning opportunities

When individuals are granted opportunities for personal growth, the likelihood of burnout diminishes (Proost, van Ruysseveldt, & van Dijke, 2012). That is, unmet expectations at work are not as likely to translate into exhaustion or turnover.

This possibility was substantiated by Proost, van Ruysseveldt, and van Dijke (2012). In their study, 420 teachers completed a survey that assessed learning opportunities, exemplified by questions like "Does your job offer opportunities for personal growth and development?", as well as exhaustion, turnover intentions, and unmet expectations. To assess unmet expectations, individuals were asked a series of questions including "During education, I had different beliefs about contact with students than I currently experience". As predicted, unmet expectations were positively associated with exhaustion. However, when many learning opportunities were offered, this relationship was not as pronounced.

Presumably, learning opportunities tend to enhance feelings of self-efficacy and orient attention to broad, abstract possibilities. This self-efficacy and attention to broader possibilities may offset the negative emotions that unmet expectations can evoke.

The fulfillment of psychological contracts

According to Rousseau (1995), employees form beliefs over their obligations to the organization as well as the obligations of their organization to them. These beliefs are called psychological contracts. In particular, employees assume the organization will bestow rights and rewards provided they fulfill specific duties and responsibilities. Yet, unlike legal contracts, psychological contracts are subjective and intangible rather than objective and explicit.

As Bal, De Cooman, and Mol (2013) showed, when employees feel these psychological contracts have been fulfilled, they are more likely to experience work engagements. Specifically, in this study, participants indicated the degree to which they felt the organization has fulfilled its obligations, such as bestowed adequate levels of job security, interesting work, opportunities to contribute to decision making or develop skills, fair pay, autonomy, career prospects, and other fringe benefits. These participants also answered questions that gauge their level of work engagement and turnover intentions.

The extent to which the organization fulfilled these psychological contracts was positively associated with work engagement and negatively associated with turnover intentions, but only in employees who had not worked many years at the organization. Presumably, after employees are recruited, they are very sensitive to the degree to which the organization reciprocates their efforts. If the organization does fulfill these psychological contracts, employees feel obliged to commit to the organization, analogous to social exchange theory. These individuals also feel a sense of control over their status and rewards, potentially increasing engagement rather than uncertainty as well.

In contrast, after many years of working at an organization, employees may not be as sensitive to whether the organization reciprocates their efforts. Instead, they forme a sense of identity and loyalty with the organization that may shape their level of commitment and engagement, even if the contract of fulfillments declines. Their level of engagement, for exampe, may depend on the relationships they have formed and their sense of attachment to the organization instead of the provisions this organization offers.

Emotional labor

Emotional labor, in general, reduces engagement. That is, in many jobs, individuals need to act as if they feel happy and excited when they actually feel frustrated, anxious, or angry, for example. This need to feign specific emotions is called surface acting. Alternatively, rather than feign emotions, individuals might strive to experience these emotions. They might genuinely attempt to evoke happy and supportive feelings, called deep acting (Grandey, 2003).

Surface acting and, to a lesser extent, deep acting may curb engagement. Specifically, when individuals engage in surface acting, they need to inhibit undesirable feelings. Inhibition of feelings demands unrelenting effort and depletes mental energy (see ego depletion), increasing the likelihood of exhaustion and ultimately burnout instead of engagement. Deep acting also demands considerable mental energy, at least while the individuals foster the desirable emotions, and thus diminishes engagement.

Nevertheless, as Bechtoldt, Rohrmann, De Pater, and Beersma (2011) showed, if individuals recognize emotions proficiently, surface acting and deep acting, collectively called emotional labor, are not as likely to curb burnout. That is, some individuals can readily and efficiently decipher the emotions that other people are experiencing, called emotional recognition. Because of this capacity, these individuals may be able to adjust their own emotions, seamlessly and naturally. Their mental energy is preserved, and engagement is maintained.

Specifically, in one study, participants completed a series of questionnaires and tests. One questionnaire assessed the extent to which individuals engage in surface acting (e.g., "I put on an act in order to deal with clients in an appropriate way") and deep acting (e.g., "I make an effort to actually feel the emotions that I need to display towards others"). Another questionnaire assessed work engagement, including vigor, dedication, and absorption.

One of the tests, called the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy Scale, assessed emotional recognition. In this variant of the test, 24 photographs depicted an adult face, with a happy, angry, fearful, or sad expression, some of which were quite subtle. Participants needed to decipher which emotion the face displayed.

When emotional regulation was impaired, both surface acting and deep acting were negatively associated with work engagement. However, when emotional regulation was proficient, surface acting and deep acting were not negatively, and were perhaps positively, associated with work engagement.

Leader relational behaviors

Carnell, Ben-Hador, Waldman, and Rupp (2009) demonstrated that leaders who strive to improve relationships amongst employees enhance at least one facet of engagement: vigor. In this study, participants evaluated the extent to which their leader attempts to enhance collaboration and cultivate a culture of openness and trust, collectively called leader relational behaviors. Next, participants specified the degree to which they experience vigor and energy at work as well as the extent to which they developed close and trusting relationships with colleagues. Finally, managers rated the performance of these participants at work.

As hypothesized, leader relational behaviors were positively related to vigor. This association was mediated by the degree to which participants felt they had developed close and trusting relationships with colleagues (Carnell, Ben-Hador, Waldman, & Rupp, 2009). Furthermore, vigor was related to performance.

Several mechanisms might explain the relationship between the development of trusting relationships at work and the engagement of employees with their tasks. First, individuals might receive more positive feedback about their work. Colleagues seem interested in their role. Hence, employees feel their tasks are important, which can facilitate engagement (see Thoman, Sansone, & Pasupathi, 2006). Second, individuals experience a sense of security and thus can focus attention on their task rather than maintain vigilance (see, for example, Kahn, 2007;; see also Dutton, 2003;; Putman, 2000;; Shirom, 2007, for related perspectives).

Opportunities for employees to construct their job title

In some organizations, employees are permitted to create their own job titles. Physicians whose expertise relates to infectious diseases might call themselves a germ slayer. Nurses who administer vaccinations might call themselves quick shots and so forth. Interestingly, when individuals are granted this right, emotional exhaustion at work tends to diminish.

For example, in one study, conducted by Grant, Berg, and Cable (2014), some but not all employees in a health care organization were granted the right to assign themselves job titles. At various times afterwards, they completed measures of burnout. They also completed a scale that gauges whether they feel their identity is perceived accurately by other people, called self-verification, epitomized by items like "I feel that people at work understand who I am". Finally, they completed items that gauge the degree to which they experience psychological safety, defined by whether they feel their distinct qualities will be accepted or rejected, such as "In working with other people in this organization, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized".

If people were granted the right to construct their own job titles, they were not as likely to experience emotional exhaustion at work. This relationship was mediated by self-verification and psychological safety. Presumably, when people construct their job titles, they feel the organization embraces the unique roles and qualities of individuals. They feel they can demonstrate their personal qualities and distinct tendencies without the risk of rejection. Consequently, they feel their unique tendencies will be appreciated instead of concealed. They do not need to inhibit their tendencies, diminishing burnout.

Nevertheless, some complications need to be acknowledged. Amusing or quirky job titles might be suitable only in organizations that seem youthful and trendy rather than conservative and professional. Furthermore, once the novelty of these titles wanes, they may need to be shifted slightly.

Idiosyncratic deals to expand jobs

In practice, three approaches can be applied to change and refine the jobs and roles of employees. First, managers can redesign the jobs of employees. They might review the organization, specify the updated responsibilities of each job class, and then impose these changes onto employees. The ensuing jobs, however, seldom utilize the distinct skills or accommodate the unique preferences of each person. Second, employees can informally craft the job themselves. They can change the procedures they apply or focus on some tasks in lieu of other tasks. Yet, the scope of changes is limited and not always beneficial to the organization.

Third, employees and managers can negotiate these changes. The employees can approach managers and request changes to various features of their job. The managers can then discuss, and eventually approve, these requests, called idiosyncratic deals. As Hornung, Rousseau, Glaser, Angerer, and Weigl (2010) showed, these idiosyncratic deals tend to be positively associated with work engagement.

In particular, Hornung, Rousseau, Glaser, Angerer, and Weigl (2010) administered a large survey to many employees of two large organizations, primarily to examine the antecedents and consequences of idiosyncratic deals. They showed that mutual relationships between employees and managers, called leader-member exchange, together with job tenure increased the frequency of these idiosyncratic deals. These idiosyncratic deals, in turn, increased the complexity of roles, fostered a sense of control, and diminished common sources of stress, such as role overload or ambiguity. This increase in complexity and sense of control, coupled with the decrease in stress, was positively associated with engagement at work.

According to Liu, Lee, Hui, Kwan, and Wu (2013), two accounts explain the benefits of idiosyncratic deals. First, consistent with social exchange theory, in response to idiosyncratic deals, employees feel obliged to reciprocate the assistance they received, increasing the level of effort they devote to their tasks at work. Second, consistent with the notion of self-enhancement, after they receive idiosyncratic deals, employees feel their skills and capabilities must be appreciated& they feel valued and therefore committed to the organization, driving their motivation, effort, and productivity.

Liu, Lee, Hui, Kwan, and Wu (2013) verified both of these accounts. In this study, participants first completed scales that gauge the degree to which employees had negotiated with managers to receive special training opportunities or provisions to balance their work and life responsibilities, called developmental i-deals and flexibility i-deals respectively. In addition, these individuals completed questions that measure the degree to which they perceive the organization as supportive--representing social exchange--and the degree to which they feel valued by the organization--called organizational based self-esteem--as well as affective commitment and proactive behavior. Finally, the extent to which individuals embrace individualism rather than focus on communal goals was assessed.

As predicted, both categories of idiosyncratic deals were associated with affective commitment and proactive behavior. In addition, perceived organizational support and organizational based self-esteem partly mediated all these relationships. The role of organizational based self-esteem was especially pronounced in participants who embrace individualism and thus value self-esteem more than social exchange.

Psychological disorders

Research has examined whether psychological disorders predict burnout, an experience that is inversely associated with engagement. For example, one of these studies was conducted by Brattberg (2006). This study compared employees on sick leave that had been at least partly ascribed to stress to other employees. All participants completed a measure of burnout, called the Shirom-Melamed Burnout Questionnaire, traumatic life events, as well as scales that gauge PTSD and ADHD. Relative to the control participants, participants on sick leave and suffering from burnout were more likely to exhibit signs of PTSD and ADHD. They were also more likely to have been victims of physical or sexual assaults. Arguably, all of these problems amplify the sensitivity of these individuals to stress, increasing exhaustion and burnout.

Consequences of engagement


Many studies have shown that engagement can enhance job performance (see also Carnell, Ben-Hador, Waldman, & Rupp, 2009). In a school, for example, the teachers who were the most engaged attracted more favorable ratings of performance (Hakanen, Bakker, & Schaufeli, 2006). These teachers exhibited considerable creativity, solved problems effectively, undertook many discretionary tasks to enhance the school, reported elevated levels of commitment, and fulfilled their prescribed roles. Engagement of employees is also positively related to financial indices, such as profit (Haudan & MacLean, 2002).

Emotional exhaustion, which is inversely related to engagement, tends to impair performance. For example, when emotional exhaustion abates, individuals are more likely to fulfill their prescribed roles (e.g., Taris & Schreuers, 2009).

Several explanations have been proposed to explain the association between engagement and job performance (for a discussion, see Bakker & Demerouti, 2008;; Bakker, Schaufeli, Leiter, & Taris, 2008). In particular, engagement tends to elicit positive emotions, which can enhance creativity, flexibility, and optimism. As a consequence, these individuals become more inclined to embrace opportunities (Cropanzano & Wright, 2001). Second, engagement tends to enhance more enduring forms of health, both physical and psychological, which in turn can facilitate effort and dedication. Third, engaged employees are more likely to uncover and accumulate resources, such as support from colleagues and information about the organization, which enable these individuals to accommodate demands and complications (Salanova, Bakker, & Llorens, 2006). Finally, engaged employees often inspire their colleagues, which can improve coordination of activities across the team (Bakker, Schaufeli, Leiter, & Taris, 2008).


Work engagement seems to be positively associated with safety at work, whereas burnout seems to be negatively related to safety. In particular, if individuals feel exhausted and resigned rather than engaged and energized, their motivation to undertake unnatural activities, including some safety practices, diminishes. That is, in this state, individuals abstain from demanding tasks and also strive to improve their immediate needs often to the detriment of their future wellbeing.

These possibilities were partly confirmed by Nahrgang, Morgeson, and Hofmann (2011). These researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 203 samples, investigating studies that have examined safety outcomes in the workplace, work engagement, burnout, job demand, and job resources together. This analysis confirmed that work engagement was positively related to various safety outcomes, whereas burnout was negatively related to safety outcomes. Furthermore, job demands, like risks and complexity, were positively associated with burnout and thus inversely related to safety. In contrast, job resources, like a supportive environment, knowledge, and autonomy, were positively related to engagement and thus safety.


Many studies also indicate that engagement is related to attitudes of employees and customers. One of these studies was conducted by Harter, Schmidt, and Hayes (2002). This study aggregated the work engagement of employees across business units. When business units demonstrated elevated levels of engagement, turnover of staff diminished. Furthermore, customers were more likely to demonstrate loyalty to these engaged units.

Physical health

As Seppala, Mauno, Kinnunen, Feldt, Juuti, Tolvanen, and Rusko (2012) showed, when individuals are engaged at work, they are more likely to be healthy. In particular, the variability of their heart, as gauged by a specific index called high frequency power of heart rate variability, was elevated. This index tends to imply the parasympathetic system is activated effectively and correlated with decreases in the likelihood of cardiac disease.

In particular, when demands increase, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the body. The heart rate increases, although variability in heart rate over time tends to diminish. When demands diminish, the parasympathetic nervous system, primarily via the vagal nerve, stimulates the restoration of bodily processes. The heart rate diminishes, and variability in heart rate actually increases. If the sympathetic nervous system dominates the parasympathetic nervous system over extended periods of time, cardiac disorders and other problems become more likely.

The high frequency power of heart rate variability reflects a measure of parasympathetic nervous system. Roughly, researchers measure the heart rate after each breath. The variability of heart rate over time is called the high frequency power of heart rate variability. As Seppala, Mauno, Kinnunen, Feldt, Juuti, Tolvanen, and Rusko (2012) showed, female cleaners who felt more engaged in their work exhibited higher levels of this measure. Presumably, because they felt engaged, they did not feel as vigilant. The parasympathetic, rather than sympathetic, nervous system was thus active.


Nevertheless, the effect of work engagement on resilience and health is quite complex. In general, when people are engaged at work, they can seem resilient even when overloaded with responsibilities. That is, overwhelming responsibilities at one time are not as likely to evoke problems later?-such as impaired concentration or frequent headaches?-in the most engaged employees (Britt, Castro, & Adler, 2005).

Yet, engagement is not always beneficial. Specifically, when people are engaged at work, their resilience to other demands, such as training, tends to diminish. That is, significant training demands at one time are especially likely to evoke problems later in engaged employees (Britt, Castro, & Adler, 2005).

In short, these findings indicate that engagement can sometimes override the adverse effects of stress. However, if employees are engaged, they may be especially frustrated by events that disrupt their work and progress.

Enriched life

As Daniel and Sonnentag (2014) showed, work engagement often improves the private lives of individuals as well. In particular, work engagement is positively related to the extent to which individuals reflect upon the positive features of their work. This reflection, coupled with the positive mood that individuals experience as a consequence of work engagement, subsequently increases the extent to which they feel work enriches their life. For example, they become more likely to endorse items like "The things I do at work help me deal with personal and practical issues at home".

Arguably, the reflection of desirable facets of work enables individuals to capitalize on these experiences. That is, according to appraisal theory, such reflections, and the concommitant positive appraisals, evoke positive emotions. These positive emotions tend to energize people, culminating in a more fulfilling life.

Privacy and exhaustion

When individuals experience a sense of privacy at work, often because they work in a traditional office instead of open plan, emotional exhaustion tends to diminish. The importance of privacy is especially pronounced when employees are surrounded by few, rather than many, personal items.

For example, in one study, conducted by Laurence, Fried, and Slowik (2013), participants completed a survey that assessed the degree to which they feel emotionally exhausted at work as well as a sense of privacy in their workspace. Furthermore, the researchers counted the number of photographs, posters, artwork, figurines, comic strips, mugs, stickers, and similar items each participant exhibited in their workspace. If individuals did not work alone in a traditional office, surrounded by four opaque walls and an opaque door, they experienced less privacy, and this decrease in privacy was associated with greater emotional exhaustion. Yet, if participants had personalized their workspace with many items, this association between privacy and exhaustion was no longer significant.


Arguably, when privacy is impeded, individuals do not experience a strong sense of control, eliciting a vigilant orientation that is mentally exhausting. In addition, they also need to manage distractions, impeding concentration and promoting exhaustion. Yet, when individuals arrange many personal items in the workspace, they experience a sense of ownership over their territory. People associate this ownership with a feeling of safety, diminishing vigilance and preventing exhaustion.

Work interference with family

Engagement at work is usually perceived as a favorable state. Nevertheless, engagement may also coincide with some undesirable consequences. In particular, as Halbesleben, Harvey, and Bolino (2009) showed, engagement tends to be positively related to work interference with family. That is, if employees feel engaged at work, they are more likely to endorse items such as ?My work keeps me from my family activities more than I would like?.

Yet, as conscientiousness increases, this positive association between work engagement and work interference with family diminishes. Presumably, when individuals are not conscientious, and therefore not as disciplined, they do not manage their time as effectively. They merely pursue the goal that is salient at the time. When engaged at work, for example, they may overlook their family responsibilities. Consequently, they cannot reconcile their work and family goals as effectively.

Neurobiology of engagement and burnout

Serum BDNF

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, sometimes called BDNF, is a protein that stimulates the growth and differentiation of neurons and synapses, called neurogenesis (for a summary, see Binder & Scharfman, 2004). BDNF is especially active in the hippocampus and cortex, thus facilitating learning and thinking. This protein binds to at least two distinct receptors on cells.

Persistent stress and depression is often assumed to curb the secretion of BDNF, potentially contributing to atrophy of the hippocampus. Treatments of depression, such as antidepressants (see Shimizu, Hashimoto, Okamura, Koike, Komatsu, Kumakiri, Nakazato, Watanabe, 2003), exercise, and intellectual stimulation, tend to increase BDNF activity in the brain.

As Sertoza, Binbayb, Koyluc, Noyand, Yildirim, and Metef (2008) contend, depletion of BDNF is likely to be associated with burnout. Demanding, stressful environments may decrease the secretion of BDNF. For example, stress probably curbs expression of the gene that produces BDNF in the hippocampus. As the levels of BDNF dissipate, neurogenesis in the hippocampus probably subsides. That is, plasticity in this region wanes. Consequently, the hippocampus cannot regulate emotions as well as usual, and a spiral of negative states continues. That is, the hippocampus cannot module the HP axis effectively.

Sertoza, Binbayb, Koyluc, Noyand, Yildirim, and Metef (2008) confirmed some of these assumptions. In their study, 37 of the participants had been diagnosed with a clinical variant of burnout, called neurasthenia. The other 35 participants had not been diagnosed with this variant of burnout but were matched on age, gender, and education. A variety of measures were administered to gauge basal cortisol, serum BDNF, and other indices. The participants also completed a measure of burnout as well as instruments that gauge anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic complaints.

As predicted, patients diagnosed with burnout demonstrated low levels of serum BDNF relative to other participants. Furthermore, increases in emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, corresponding to a sense of detachment from other people, generally coincided with reductions of serum BDNF.

Measures of engagement

Utrecht Work Engagement scale

A measure that was constructed and validated by Schaufeli, Salanova, Gonzlez-Rom and Bakker (2002), called the Utrecht Work Engagement scale, is often administered to assess engagement (see also Salanova, Agut,& Peiro, 2005 for important correlates). The first subscale, vigor, is represented by five items and reflects elevated levels of energy, resilience, and persistence. A sample item is "I can continue working for very long periods at a time". The second subscale, dedication, is also represented by six items and corresponds to a sense of purpose, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and challenge at work. A typical item is "My job inspires me". The third subscale, absorption, represents the extent to which individuals are absorbed in their work. Confirmatory factor analysis has been applied to validate the three facets in many nations (for a review, see Bakker, Schaufeli, Leiter, & Taris, 2008).

Since the original measure was published, a shorter version, comprising only nine items, has also been developed by Schaufeli, Bakker, and Salanov (2006). Vigor is represented by three items, such as "At my work I feel bursting with energy". Dedication is represented by three items, such as "When I get up in the morning, I feel like going to work". Finally, absorption is represented by three items, including "I am immersed in my work".

These three dimensions of engagement--vigor, dedication, and absorption--are similar to the facets of some other measures. May, Gilson, and Harter (2004), for example, developed a measure that distinguishes three facets. The first facet, physical engagement, represented by items like "I exert a lot of energy performing my job", is similar to vigor. The second facet, emotional engagement, exemplified by questions like "I really put my heart into my job", seems to overlap with dedication. The third facet, cognitive engagement, as illustrated by items like "Performing my job is so absorbing that I forget about everything else", corresponds to absorption.

Measures derived from the work of Kahn

Rich, Lepine, and Crawford (2010) develop a measure of engagement that more explicitly assesses the three dimension of engagement that were defined by Kahn (1990, 1992): the investment of physical, emotional, and cognitive energy into the task at work. First, to represent physical engagement, Rich, Lepine, and Crawford (2010) adapted items from a measure of work intensity, developed by Brown and Leigh (1996). This subscale comprised six items, such as "I work with intensity on my job".

Second, to represent emotional engagement, a set of items were derived from a measure that was utilized by Russell and Barrett (1999), entailing two dimensions: positive or pleasant feelings and a sense of energy or activation. In particular, each item refers to the extent to which individuals perceive their job as both pleasant and energizing. This subscale also comprised six items, such as "I am excited about my job".

Third, to represent cognitive engagement, items developed by Rothbard (2001) were adapted to assess the degree to which individuals felt both focused as well as engrossed in their work. One example of these six items is "At work, I am absorbed by my job". Confirmatory factor analysis substantiated these three factors, with CFI = .97 and RMSEA = .09.

Other measures

Other measures of engagement comprise only one main factor. Peterson, Park, and Seligman (2006), for example, developed a measure of engagement that primarily seems to represent absorption. They conceptualized engagement, together with meaning and pleasure, as the three factors that underpin happiness. Harter, Schmidt, and Hayes (2002) developed a measure, comprising 12 items, that assesses one facet, but defined more broadly. They defined engagement as the perception that expectations are clear, the job is significant, colleagues are trustworthy, and the potential to develop is strong.

Other alternatives are also available. If engagement is conceptualized as the converse of burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory is sometimes administered (see Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996). Low levels of exhaustion and cynicism as well as elevated levels of efficacy are assumed to manifest engagement (cf., Maslach & Leiter 1997, 2008). Indeed, research indicates that vigor and exhaustion seem to represent opposite poles of one dimension& similarly, dedication and cynicism represent opposite poles of one dimension (see Gonzalez-Roma, Schaufeli, Bakker, & Lloret, 2006). The Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Ebbinghaus, 2002) is sometimes preferred instead, because the scale includes both positively and negatively worded items, more applicable to engagement.

Related concepts

Engagement at work might overlap with the concept of flow. Engagement usually represents experiences of vigor, dedication to the role, and periods of absorption over extended periods of time--weeks, months, or even years (Hallberg & Schaufeli, 2006). In contrast, flow usually represents an acute and temporary burst of this absorption, usually over the duration of minutes or hours.

Orientations to happiness

According to the orientations to happiness framework, first proposed by Seligman (2002), engagement is only one of three main sources of happiness. In addition to engagement, pleasure and meaning also enhance happiness. In this context, pleasure revolves around sensory gratification, such as listening to enjoyable music, as well as positive thoughts and memory. Meaning, in contrast, relates to a sense that life is connected to a greater purpose and to other people (see meaning in life). As Peterson, Park, and Seligman showed, engagement and meaning--and to a lesser extent pleasure--was highly related to measures of wellbeing, such as life satisfaction (see also Vella-Brodrick, Park, & Peterson, 2009).

Job satisfaction and job involvement

Rich, Lepine, and Crawford (2010) maintain that engagement underpins the relationship between positive experiences at work and performance more effectively than some alternative attitudes, such as job satisfaction, job involvement, and intrinsic motivation. In their study, participants completed a series of scales. In particular, participants completed measures that represent the extent to which they feel the work aligns to their values, called value congruence, and their organization supports employees. Furthermore, a measure of core self evaluations, comprising self esteem, self efficacy, emotional stability, and locus of control, was also administered. In addition, they completed the various measures of work attitudes, including engagement, job satisfaction, job involvement, and intrinsic motivation. Finally, their supervisors assessed their task performance and level of organizational citizenship behavior.

Value congruence, perceived organizational support, and core self evaluations were indeed associated with both task performance and organizational citizenship behavior. These relationships were mediated by engagement. The other work attitudes, such as job satisfaction, did not mediate these relationships after engagement was controlled. Indeed, these other work attitudes mediated few of these associations.

These findings also confirm the three antecedents of engagement that Kahn (1990, 1992) differentiated: meaning, safety, and availability. Value congruence presumably represents the extent to which the job seems meaningful. That is, if individuals need to engage in roles that align with their aspirations and values, they perceive the job as more inviting, significant, and important. Second, perceived organizational support, arguably, represents the extent to which the environment is safe. That is, when the organization is supportive, individuals feel they are trusted and sense their wellbeing is respected. Third, core self evaluations represent confidence, increasing the likelihood that individuals feel willing and prepared to invest themselves into the role, called availability.


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