Engaging the American Workforce

A mural dedicated to the history of the Pullman railcar company is shown in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago, August 22, 2014.

Labor has literally and figuratively built America, but all that hard work is rarely celebrated. Even the establishment of Labor Day required major sacrifices: Congress quickly created the national holiday after U.S. troops opened fire on striking workers during a protest at the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1894. So much has changed in the 120 years since the Pullman Strike that it is understandable that the turmoil surrounding the event has faded from the collective American consciousness. Modern workers now have important legislated protections—including a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, and the right to a healthy and safe working environment. But even after considerable gains in labor rights and workplace safety, much remains to be done to improve the relationship between employees and their jobs.

Measuring the relationship between employees and their jobs

An August 2014 Gallup poll found that 48 percent of employed adults said that they were “completely satisfied” with their jobs, and another 41 percent were “somewhat satisfied.” However, employee satisfaction is a subjective measurement. Since it reflects only general attitudes and perceptions, satisfaction has little relation to productivity or performance.

Fortunately, there is a better measure: employee engagement. Gallup also surveys this attitude, defining engaged employees “as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.” The survey includes questions about professional opportunities, relationships at work, and feelings of value to the organization. Current results give a much different impression of our workplaces than those offered by polls on employee satisfaction: Only one-third of employees are engaged in their work.

Low engagement affects employees and employers

The disparity is obvious between the percentage of employees who are satisfied with their work and the percentage of employees who are engaged with their work. These low levels of job engagement should be concerning to both employees and employers. When employees are engaged, they can have more rewarding jobs, and employers benefit from improved business outcomes.

During the typical workday, the average working-age adult with children spends more time working and participating in work-related activities than he or she spends sleeping—amounting to 8.7 hours and 7.7 hours, respectively. These hours add up to years, if not decades, spent in a work setting over the course of a lifetime. Because employees make such a large commitment of their time—the most precious resource—they want and deserve a rewarding job, regardless of their occupation.

Employee empowerment is a major theme of Gallup’s engagement survey questions. One question asks if the work provided matches the individual’s particular strengths. Aligning work and strengths surely increases the likelihood of professional success. Another question asks about “opportunities to learn and grow” as an employee. Gaining new skills and abilities could help an employee advance in an organization or be more attractive to another employer. Moreover, levels of engagement at work can have a real impact on employees’ quality of life outside the workplace. Disengaged employees, for example, are less likely to eat well or exercise regularly and are more likely to miss regular activities for health reasons.

Levels of employee engagement also seriously affect employers. One analysis studied the difference between the top and bottom quartiles of various companies’ business units as ranked by engagement. The results were straightforward: Engagement is a strong predictor of business outcomes. When employees were engaged, customer satisfaction was 2 percent to 4 percent higher, profitability was 1 percent to 4 percent higher, monthly revenues were around $100,000 higher, and turnover was often reduced by at least 10 percent.

Increasing engagement

Employee engagement cannot be improved through any simple solution; rather, employers must build and support an effective workplace culture. Creating opportunities for training and advancement, allowing strong representation of worker interests, and offering a stake in the business and its outcomes all improve the relationship between workers and their jobs.

Interestingly, a substantial portion of employee engagement focuses on how to quantify the benefits for employers while glossing over how engaged employees benefit. This Labor Day, and every day, let’s consider how higher employee engagement can benefit employees, as well as employers and society. There is no reason we should not continue to make work better.

Andrew Schwartz is a Research Associate on the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress.