The Psychology of Work
There is a lot an employer can do to maximize employee engagement.
- By Neil Rankin
- Sep 18, 2008
Imagine this: A small-town retail store owner
struggling to find responsible, dedicated employees
is approached by a key employee who
generally is engaged in her job and has tenure.
She asks for four weeks off for what in the employer’s
mind is minor surgery. The employer, faced with losing
a key employee for four weeks and having no one
to replace her, tells the employee an absence of four
weeks would result in a significant disruption to the
business. He turns down her request.
The employee decides to proceed with the surgery.
The employee returns to work following successful
surgery and resumes full duties and hours. Needless to
say, the rapport that once existed between the employee
and employer is no longer present.
During the next six months, the employee/employer
relationship deteriorates further. Arguments
ensue over work assignments and hours of work. The
employee becomes disenfranchised and bad mouths
her employer. She tells friends and co-workers the
owner is trying to fire her. Over time, the employee
loses confidence in her ability to do her job and becomes
increasingly anxious around her boss. She is
written up for poor performance and no longer receives
positive performance reviews.
Believing she is on the verge of being fired, she has
a nervous breakdown. The employer is told by her attending
physician she will be off work indefinitely. As
details emerge, the employer learns the primary return-
to-work obstacle is the employee’s fear of her
boss. The short-term disability claim becomes a long-term
disability claim. The employee’s anxiety has
grown to the point where she no longer feels capable
of entering the store to shop.
Realizing her job options are limited in a small
town, she is faced with returning to her pre-disability
employer or moving into a new industry, which would
result in loss of seniority. She opts for a new career. The
employee and the employer lose.
What could have been done to avoid this negative outcome?
Clearly, the employer’s limited success in hiring
employees left him vulnerable. What contingency
strategies do you have in place when a key employee
requires extended time off work? What lessons could
the employer learn from this scenario?
This case study demonstrates that having a proactive
disability management program is just part of the
puzzle. Employee morale, employee engagement,
communication, and synergy between management
and staff all contribute to the effectiveness of your disability
management program, employee health, absenteeism,
For example, if the retail owner had better understood
the needs of the employee prior to the lost-time
claim, steps could have been taken to ensure the employee’s
issues could have been addressed. Ironically,
the employer’s limited investment in the employees resulted
in limited recruiting success. Proactive management
of employee issues will positively affect all aspects
of the business, including customer service,
attendance management, and business growth.
Consider this: By making human resources management
a primary focus, management has more time
to think about growing and planning for the future instead
of dealing primarily with day-to-day issues, such
as shift shortages, hiring issues, or lost-time claims.
Planning for the Future
Here are some issues to consider:
1. Are you a “big picture” thinker? Are you operating
in a silo, or do you see how corporate decisions affect
all stakeholders? Here are some examples of silo
Autocratic decision making, where the individual
does not take into consideration other departments or
Limited or no communication with other departments
to discuss strategies to improve synergy among
departments to improve customer experience. Customer
service is critical. By developing strategies that
will empower your employees to address customer service
issues, everyone wins.
2. Do you think in terms of Win/Win or Win/Lose
outcomes? In the above scenario, the employer did not support the employee’s request for time off
work. He perceived the situation as harmful
to himself and his business. In reality, this
decision resulted in a significant disruption
not only for a month, but indefinitely. The
limited communication between the employee
and employer resulted in a no-compromise
situation. If the employer had discussed
the situation with the employee,
perhaps she may have returned to work
prior to the original request of four weeks.
Perhaps some modified work could have
been offered to facilitate her recovery.
3. Do you consider your employees’
needs first when making business decisions?
The long-term ramifications of not
working with your employees can be very
time consuming, expensive, and destructive
to business growth. Creating an environment
that will promote positivism and synergy
among all staff, where everyone is
working toward what is best for the company
and in turn what is best for each employee,
can significantly enhance growth
opportunities. Conversely, grievances,
strikes, and chronic customer service issues
result in lack of focus and, eventually, loss
4. Are your employees engaged? If not,
why? Imagine how other employees would
perceive the above situation. Would they
think time off for personal reasons is
frowned upon? Would time off for any
personal reasons (e.g. child care issues or
stress) be turned down? Will I lose my job?
As you can see, when management takes a
hard stand on this type of issue, the ripple
effect among employees is potentially
huge. In this case, the employee asked for
time off work for what the employer perceived
as minor surgery. How are you
judging your employees, and what possible
ramifications will result?
5. Do your employees consider a job with
your company a stopgap until they get a better
offer? While no employee is completely
happy 100 percent of the time, it is important
for employers to have ongoing and regular
communication formally and informally
to understand the issues that are
dominating employees’ thoughts.
Employees’ productivity is directly proportional
to how happy they are performing
their job and how supportive their employer
is in dealing with non-work-related
matters. In this case, it is likely the employee’s
productivity dropped dramatically after
she was told no time off would be granted
for something that was important to her.
Chances are, after being angry and frustrated,
she was spending more time thinking
about securing a new job than focusing on
her job responsibilities. The term “presenteeism”
is applicable here; it refers to the notion
that while an employee is at work physically,
emotionally and cognitively she is a
million miles away. Presenteeism can result
in errors, omissions, and health and safety
issues for one or more employees.
6. Do you have communication strategies
that you use regularly for two-way
communication flow? As stated above, formal
and informal communication with all
employees is an absolute must. Most employees
perceive a trip to the manager’s office
as negative. What did I do wrong? How
will my co-workers perceive this meeting?
Establishing a set time for one-on-one interaction
formally or informally will assist
in ensuring two-way information flows between
employee and supervisor to identify
issues while also giving the supervisor
the opportunity to reinforce good behavior,
which in turn results in a more engaged
7. How do your employees perceive
management? Do your employees perceive
management as a strength or a weakness?
While it is the role of management to
make difficult decisions, are those decisions
perceived as positive or negative by
employees? Are the decisions helping the
company to keep and attract new employees,
ensure continued growth, and compete with other organizations?
8. Is your hiring process getting you results?
Fact: Employee turnover can cost an
employer 50 to 200 percent of salary per
employee. Leading employers recognize
the importance of hiring the right person
the first time by developing a comprehensive
recruiting strategy that results in very
low turnover. Generally speaking, very few
employers invest the time and money required
to minimize their chances of hiring
the wrong person. Today there are numerous
services available to screen potential
employees (personality testing, work simulation
testing, interest testing, physical
abilities testing, skills testing, and stress
testing) to ensure you make the right decision
the first time.
9. Work/Life Balance: More than ever,
employees are looking for a company that
understands their lives do not start and
end at work. By empowering your employees,
you give them the opportunity to
balance their work lives with their personal
lives. Working is an important part of
living a happy, successful life. Most employees
understand the importance of
work in their lives and are reasonable in
balancing the needs of their employers
with their own needs.
10. Does your corporation offer employee
wellness services? Wellness services,
simple or complex, are highly valued by
employees. As the workforce ages, companies
that offer wellness programs (such as
onsite immunization clinics, fitness facilities,
organized fitness, smoke cessation programs,
weight loss programs, at-work activities
such as walking clubs, relationship
management, financial management, and
numerous other wellness-related services)
will become employers of choice.
Clearly, there is a lot an employer can do
to maximize employee engagement. By implementing
some or all of the ideas outlined
above that address psychological aspects of
work, employers can improve employee/employer
relations, which in turn will reduce
the time senior management spends on addressing
day-to-day issues and increases the
time it spends on future growth.
This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.