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Does staff engagement make a difference in the health service?

Date: 14 June 2018

Category: Staff wellbeing

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We’ve heard a lot recently about the importance of high levels of engagement for staff performance and wellbeing, and it has also been suggested that staff engagement leads to better outcomes for service users. But what real evidence is there that engaged staff have healthier patients? And what drives up levels of engagement in the first place?

Taking the first question first, the simple answer is that we don’t know for sure.  Intuitively, it makes sense to say that if staff are engaged with their work, then patients will benefit, but not enough research has addressed this specific issue. The small number of studies that have been carried out suggest that there may well be a link between engagement and better quality patient care.

More research has, however, examined the link between engagement and the performance of both individuals and teams in a variety of different occupations and organisation types. All the evidence points to a positive link between engagement, productivity and performance at the level of both the individual and the team.

Equally, research shows that high levels of engagement are beneficial for individual workers as well, in terms of decreased levels of stress and burnout, higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment, and enhanced creativity and innovation.

Overall, all the signs are that securing high levels of staff engagement is a desirable goal for healthcare organisations.

What can employers do?

Given this, what can employers do to raise levels of engagement? The evidence suggests that there is no quick-fix, off-the-peg solution. Rather, engagement should be considered at the systemic level.  Research suggests that interventions should focus on two broad areas: leadership and management style, and job design.

In the area of leadership and management, we can find quite a lot of evidence that positive leadership styles are a good way of fostering high levels of engagement among the workforce. For example, leaders who provide their staff with support, who are empowering and enabling, and who act with integrity are more likely to have engaged teams.

Healthcare managers may be less familiar with the idea that engagement levels can be raised through careful attention to job design features. However, there is a wealth of research showing that jobs which allow the incumbent to experience autonomy, where the individual receives frequent, high-quality feedback and where there is a harmonious and supportive work environment are more likely to be engaged. When people find their work meaningful, then this is also an important driver of engagement. Equally, we know that where people feel overly burdened with an unmanageable workload or feel unsupported by their manager, then engagement levels will be lower.  These findings have been found to be true across a wide range of work settings, including health care.  However, the interventions put in place to foster high levels of engagement are likely to need to vary according to the specifics of each individual situation.

In summary, high levels of engagement do matter for all employees whether in the health care sector or elsewhere. This is particularly true during the current challenging and pressured times when it is all too easy to forget about staff needs and focus instead on immediate short-term issues.

  • Summary:

    We’ve heard a lot recently about the importance of high levels of engagement for staff performance and wellbeing, and it has also been suggested that staff engagement leads to better outcomes for service users. But what real evidence is there that engaged staff have healthier patients?

About the author

Katie Bailey

Professor of Work and Employment, King's Business School

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