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Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2021 Report found that European countries were remarkably resilient to the effects of the pandemic in 2020, but their longer-term track record of employee engagement still raised significant concern. European employees are among the least engaged in the world. However, while the scale of the issue is continental, the solution could be relatively straightforward.

Flatlining employee engagement

While there is considerable variation in the level of employee engagement from country to country, Europe as a whole has experienced a long-term stagnation in its engagement levels. Less than 20% of the continent’s workforce is engaged by their daily experience of work, and the situation has failed to improve for some time.

Europe’s flatlining engagement looks even starker in light of the slow but steady increase in engagement levels across the globe: 20% in 2020 compared to 12% in 2009. In the US, for example, engagement has risen from 28% to 36% since the turn of the century. Compare this to Germany, for instance, where engagement has remained rooted to the level it was at in 2001 (see below), and it is clear that even Europe’s economic powerhouse has been caught in the doldrums.

What makes an engaged employee?

Employee engagement is about more than just satisfaction, though that is obviously a key component. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report measures engagement using 12 metrics, each of which has a proven link to performance outcomes. Engaged employees know, for example, what is expected of them at work and how their day-to-day activities contribute to the purpose of their organization.

Organizations which perform well against these emotional workplace needs are more likely to enjoy positive outcomes, such as high retention rates among staff as well as increased productivity and profitability. Moreover, employee engagement becomes an even stronger predictor of organizational performance during difficult economic periods – an extremely important finding as the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt throughout the global economy.

Engagement also has strong links with workers’ wellbeing. This may not be surprising; people who feel more heard at work, praised and appreciated for their contributions, or feel that they are playing to their strengths tend to feel better about their lives overall. On the other hand, the majority of actively disengaged employees in Europe reported feeling stressed during the previous working day. As organizations gain a greater appreciation of the need to support workers’ mental and physical health in the wake of the pandemic, recognizing this link between engagement and wellbeing could be crucial for improving the employee experience.

Raising the bar

Despite a decade of stagnation, Europe’s comparatively low engagement levels are by no means doomed to continue. Returning to Germany, when Gallup asked employees whether they would continue working even if they inherited enough money to live comfortably without doing so, 74% said they would still work. Some signs are promising, therefore, that European engagement can rise again.

A simple solution is for organizations to look at the success stories and try to emulate what goes on there. Gallup’s research has found that employees have the same basic emotional needs across the globe, so European workers should close the gap on their extra-European counterparts once employers commit to fulfilling these needs. Indeed, organizations working with Gallup in which engagement is a strategic area of focus achieved engagement scores of 44%, as compared to the European average of 16% – showing that improvement is possible.

European organizations, therefore, need to recognize that employees want more from their jobs than just a paycheque. A sense of purpose and development is equally important.

Management matters

Ensuring that organizations meet the needs of their employees is the responsibility of the leadership team. Analyzing organizations that have driven engagement levels up from below-average to 70% or more, the commitment of leaders to long-term change is consistently the decisive factor.

Accounting for 70% of the variance in engagement levels, the manager is the single greatest influence on employee engagement. Organizations should therefore concentrate attention and resources on providing more comprehensive management training, which will equip managers to effectively deliver on the emotional workplace needs of their employees.

Moreover, while 97% of managers feel that they do a good job of managing their teams, more than two-thirds of employees report the direct experience of bad management in their careers. This, of course, does not add up – and organizational performance is suffering as a result of this managerial blind spot.

When it comes to improving employee engagement, therefore, European companies have to start from the top. Investing more in the quality of leadership is by far the most effective way to improve engagement levels, which in turn will impact positively on performance. What may at first seem like an intangible concept of ‘engagement’, is actually very quantifiable and, more importantly, incredibly valuable to European organizations.

By: Pa Sinyan, Managing Partner for Europe, Gallup; & Marco Nink, Regional Lead in Research and Analytics, EMEA, Gallup.

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