Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Dark Side of Engagement: Burnout? Turnover? Suicide?

I suspect that engagement is like many aspects of leadership and relationships, where you need “the right amount” and the “right kind.” We have all met leaders that over use a strength: talkers talk too much, thinkers over intellectualize.  How about employees that engage too much?

In this post I will explore the dark side of engagement—the extreme ends of the scale—too much engagement or to little engagement.  I know of no measures of these extremes—perhaps this will inspire one. 

Too Little (or Too Much) Engagement
Being “burned out,’ defined by a lack of interest and energy for work, is the negative end of engagement.  Burn-out  provides a useful way of thinking about the negative end of the engagement continuum. Burnout, which is common in helping professions, such as social services and medicine, is a terrible thing to see.  Burned-out professionals have given and given until they have no reserves left to give.  In the social services I’ve worked with burned out leaders and it is terrible—people who work to give (they certainly aren’t doing it for the wages) can sometimes hit a wall and want to give more but just have no more reserves.  Wikipedia’s summary of burnout is especially interesting.  

Some think of turnover as the ultimate act of disengagement. This is a myth. Many factors, including pay, opportunities and family situation will keep a disengaged employee going to work. Unfortunately they are not doing much to advance organizational goals.  Does your organization know the level of disengagement in the workforce?
Spouses who “give too much,” end up losing their own capabilities. Too much engagement can lead to employee burnout. Since engagement as an active effort to work towards the goals of an organization, extreme engagement can lead to burnout. 

Being over engaged in a job can lead to other problems. Have you ever met someone who takes his/her job too seriously?  I have. Self-important individuals are irritating, but over engagement can lead to dysfunctional organizational behavior. Consider a sales organization where competition between employees is so intense that useful information is not shared.  Does your organization have pockets of over-engagement?

Over engagement, if taken to the extreme, might even lead to violence on the job or suicide. Imbalanced individuals could misappropriate employee engagement and translate it to workplace violence against others or themselves.  Talking about suicide and engagement in the same sentence is sort of creepy—but it may be useful.

The Wrong Type of Engagement
The rash of on-the-job suicides in France can help to understand engagement and over engagement.  Recently three employees at Euro Disney ended their lives, and in 2008 and 2009 thirty-four France Télécom employees, committed suicide.  France’s rate of suicide is pretty high (14.7 suicides per 100,000 in a year compared to the US rate of 11.1).   But, these two French organizations have even higher annual rates of 25 per 100,000 Disney employees (according to my back of the envelope analysis) and 15.3 per 100,000 France Télécom employees ) during the periods discussed.

The suicides have turned into labor relations issues with the unions accusing management of terrible working conditions.  Certainly France Telecom has changed drastically since privatizing and the employees who were civil servants may be shocked by the changes, which included cost cutting, reductions in force and job changes.  However, it is also certain that an individual has to be pretty engaged in his or her work to committ suicide over work-related issues.

French employees are extremely engaged in work but in a way that seems to be different from Anglo countries.  They engage socially and not necessarily in alignment with corporate strategy. While in the United States we think of job engagement about energy and a focus on getting results in alignment with strategy, it is different in France. 

France is a much more stable employment environment. Employees statistics from the early 1990s report US manufacturing turnover rates of 40% compared to rates of 14% in France.  In such a stable environment individuals are likely to personally identify with their job-- like the US "company man" of the 1950s.  

Christian Baudelot, professor of sociology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris thinks a french person's social identity is largely about their work and their employer.  He says: “The truth is that we are very attached to our jobs. More than almost anywhere else, people define themselves by their professions. Ask an English builder to describe himself and he might well say that he is a Liverpudlian or a Geordie or a Manchester United supporter. Here, he will say that he is a builder. In Italy and Spain, people rely on the family for solidarity.... France is different. People are taught to get by in groups and it is in the workplace where they seek the solidarity they need. The workplace is the cement of our society."

Towers Perrin found the French have very low engagement, which they define as people's willingness and ability to give discretionary effort at work. 

 Source: Towers Perrin & Concours Group-2006

It seems pretty clear that the French employee's engagement in is more about social structures and self-identify and less about working in alignment to achieve corporate strategy.

It is good to have people self-identify with work, but it may be more important to have employee engagement that is in alignment with strategy.  It seems clear that we have to be careful how we think about engagement—we have to be “careful what we wish for.”

I wrote this post to keep us thinking and to make sure we are not taking engagement too far.  Please let me know your thoughts.

Charley Morrow


Leigh Branham said...

I appreciate the perspective, Charley. One rarely hears about too much engagement. I, and my co-author, Mark Hirschfeld, wrote about this in our new book--Re-Engage. To quote: Workaholism is not engagement. Employees who constantly push themselves hard to perform well may become burned out. We all need periods of 'rejuvenative disengagement' (or downtime) in the form of regular breaks, free evenings and weekends for rest and recreation, and periodic vacations. Employers need to guard against taking undue advantage of a highly engaged employee's willingness to take on more work. The 'job creep' phenomenon results when managers load up dependable high performers with so much work that opportunities for downtime become less and less available." For more about Re-Engage, go to www.re-engagebook.com.

Fred said...

That's certainly an interesting post, Charley. Too much engagement? Engagement in the wrong things? I hadn't thought about it that way, but once you expand into that way of looking at it, then it seems to me you expand far beyond just the workplace. Maybe the basic questions are (1) what does a person care about? and (2)What do they put their energy into? And following from that: What's the alignment between (1) and (2). And finally, does either (1)or (2)have anything to do with the work that person does?

Great blog.