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  • Adele

What is the difference between a happy workforce and an engaged workforce?

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

You might think that a happy workforce is an engaged workforce, well actually no, the 2 things are not necessarily the same thing.

You might find that some employees are happy: happy with their salary, happy with their working hours, happy with their line manager, happy with the colleagues they work with – they work hard, stay loyal and don’t leave the company. But are they engaged?

What is being engaged?

Being engaged means being so embedded in the organisation and the work they do, that employees are actively contributing every day to move the organisation forward, improve sales, gain/retain customers and literally going over and above the call of duty.

A happy employee does not necessarily go over and above, so they aren’t necessarily engaged.

If you have happy, but not engaged employees, they might resist attempts at change as they won’t want anything to change their current state of happiness and you might find problems moving your business forward; they might just get stuck in their ways.

Why might an employee be happy and not engaged?

Well Penny Loveless, director of Pecan Partnership says

1) Lack of awareness,

2) Lack of belief and

3) It’s easier to stay in denial and smile. [i]

However, having a happy workforce that isn’t engaged is not exactly the worst problem to have. You can start to focus on the reasons as to why they might not be engaged and look at what can be done to start to change this mind set.

Getting an employee engagement survey out there might be the first step. Create structured focus groups for discussion and to generate ideas on how to correct problems. Spend time hanging out at the coffee machine and asking people what’s going on. One you have identified the problems you will need to engage with your employees and managers to establish a plan of action. You need buy-in and commitment from everyone.

Then you can work up some engagement ideas and gently start to encourage them towards engagement.

If you have an unhappy workforce that is completely disengaged, you do have a huge cultural issue and a larger mountain to climb. That being said, nothing is impossible and you can still work on a plan to move forward. You need to get to the root of the problems and figure out what is really going on in your business.

Why is an unhappy workforce a problem?

Well firstly, I am sure no one actually enjoys hearing the moaning!

You see, once the moaning is over there is actually a serious part that comes with addressing the issue.

You will need to investigate, identify and fix the problems that have been raised. This takes time, money and resources, taking the relevant manager / HR person / co-worker from other activities. Ignoring the problem only leads to it festering away until it becomes worse and often unbearable.

Sometimes a complaint might be about a particularly disruptive person in your business, this can then become a formal grievance. Once this happens then you've got a whole realm of formal processes, meetings and outcomes that will follow, a most unpleasant atmosphere whilst all this is going on and you must not forget that the 'accused' in the scenario is also an employee who, no matter what their alleged actions, also needs consideration.

Once the seed of unhappiness is sewn it spreads, from a minor moan to a formal grievance; from a couple of small whinges about a colleague or manager to a formal complaint of bullying and harassment, and let's not forget how accessible services such as ACAS are to employees and before you know it, you might have a case of constructive dismissal and be heading towards an employment tribunal. This all becomes a very nasty, expensive situation.

It's not just the employees implicated in the scenario; employees talk, no matter how much you say 'keep this matter to yourself' it won't happen. A workplace is like Chinese whispers, before you know it the whole team is involved and everyone has an opinion.

Whilst not every complaint may lead to a formal grievance, a general state of unhappiness can most certainly lead to disengagement.

Disengagement then becomes a cycle:

A disengaged workplace = lower productivity = higher employee relations issues = more leavers = more recruitment = more training = lower capacity to produce results = less customer satisfaction = more pressure on the rest of the team = more stress = more leavers = you have no business left !!!

So the importance of tackling unhappiness cannot be stressed enough. Ask yourself if your employees are truly happy, then ask whether they are engaged.

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