Some of the most pervasive beliefs about the workforce have recently been challenged by findings from a new study—among them, that workers are highly stressed, that they resent the demands of new technologies and that they dislike their bosses.
To understand what drives employees to perform and succeed, Towers Perrin recently surveyed nearly 90,000 employees in 18 countries. The survey, which explored the drivers of workforce engagement—employees’ willingness to go the extra mile to help their companies succeed—also exploded many of the myths that surround today’s workforce.
‘Good Stress’ Has Its Place in the Workforce
Concerns about the negative effects of a “stressed out” workforce appear to be overstated, according to the Towers Perrin findings. In fact, 68% of those surveyed reported being neutral to energized by on-the-job stress.
“The number of employees who indicated a level of comfort and even positive energy in response to work-related stress confirms that challenging work helps employees remain focused and interested throughout their daily routines, and more eager to contribute,” said Max Caldwell, managing principal of the firm’s global Workforce Effectiveness practice. “At the same time, our respondents do want more work-life balance, and they are looking to their employers, and especially their managers, to help them achieve that balance in ways that support both their own career aspirations and the company’s needs.”
Technology Is Not the Enemy
One of the ways to achieve balance is through increased use of technology, which is viewed as a positive factor in the work experience and not as the 24/7 “virtual prison” it’s often made out to be.
“The near-ubiquitous presence of cell phones, laptops and personal electronic devices means that employees can now access e-mail, voicemail, calendars, documents and presentations from virtually anywhere, anytime,” Caldwell said. “Far from being a problem, the vast majority of our survey respondents (86%) feel this is actually helping them achieve some level of balance between their personal and professional lives.
“This positive response not only contradicts the common belief that technology keeps employees chained to their jobs and dominates their time away from the office, but also signals that employees are realistic about the demands of today’s global business environment, and they’re willing to do what’s necessary to achieve work/life balance in a world that operates literally around the clock.”.
Working to Live
Yet another prevalent myth is that today’s workforce is “living to work,” choosing to put work at the center of their lives. While people are working hard—putting in, on average, almost 45 hours per week, with almost a fifth working 51 hours or more routinely—few employees actually share that view. More than half the respondents (59%) reported that they work to support their lives and the needs of their families, versus 18% who agreed that work actually is the most important aspect of their lives. The distinction was more apparent in the United States, despite a common view that “workaholism” has spread outward from the United States. Among the U.S. respondents, almost three-quarters (72%) agreed that they essentially work to live, with only 9% putting work at the center of their lives.
“Globally, we found that the ability to balance personal and professional life is the fifth most critical factor in employee retention,” Caldwell said. “With work-life balance playing a major role in organizations’ ability to retain employees, it makes sense for employers to take an active role in helping the workforce achieve the right combination of personal and professional satisfaction.”
In fact, 42% of the respondents agreed that their organization had policies and programs to help them balance work and personal life responsibilities; only 24% disagreed. And 51% said their manager was fair and consistent in enabling work-life flexibility. In the United States, this percentage was even higher, at 63%. Globally, however, 59% also noted they were sometimes or frequently frustrated by their own efforts to balance work and personal life, suggesting that a disconnect remains in how employers and employees perceive the “deal” and their respective responsibilities in this area.
Workers Have a Positive Outlook on the Company and Themselves
While comic strips and television shows make light of workforce negativity and malaise, the Towers Perrin survey found that most workers are satisfied, with a positive outlook about themselves and their organizations. Some key points:
-Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (63%) were confident that they would be successful, and a full 60% were optimistic about their future. Among U.S. respondents, the picture was even brighter, with 75% believing they would succeed and 67% optimistic about the future.
-The majority of respondents (69%) indicated that work was completely energizing (16%) or lifted their spirits somewhat (53%).
-An overwhelming 86% of employees worldwide liked or loved their job; 77% liked or loved their company, and 73% liked or loved their boss. In the United States, this optimism was even greater, with 82% of respondents saying they liked or loved their company and 83% saying they liked or loved their boss.
-At the same time, the research shows that employers are not fully harnessing employees’ confidence and energy. Globally, the study found a substantial “engagement gap,” with only 21% of the workforce fully engaged at work and 38% disenchanted or disengaged. While the gap in the United States was somewhat smaller—with 29% of U.S. workers engaged and 28% disenchanted or disengaged—it remains substantial enough to concern U.S. employers, particularly as they focus on sustaining and enhancing performance in a more challenging market environment.
Manager Relationships Are Important, but the Company Has More Impact
Finally, the study debunks a widely entrenched view that the first-line manager is the single most important factor in employees’ engagement and performance. While a good relationship with one’s direct manager remains very important, the actions of senior leadership and overall workplace programs and policies hold even greater weight. Indeed, the organization itself is one of the most powerful influences on employee engagement. Senior leadership’s decisions and visibility, along with learning and advancement opportunities, ranked higher than the direct manager relationship as a driver of higher employee engagement.
“We’ve found that a company’s reputation and its senior leadership wield enormous influence over employee attitudes,” Caldwell said. “When these factors combine with positive direct-manager relationships, organizations can cultivate even more positive environments for their workforce—leading to greater productivity, engagement and success.”