When I left the corporate world, terminology like employee engagement, wellbeing, even internal communications didn’t exist – not really. But I didn’t need the terminology to know that my job was making me ill.
I didn’t feel valued, recognised, or connected to the company’s mission.
I was the archetypal disengaged employee.
I had all the trappings of what is often considered to be ‘success’ – an exceptional salary, executive car, impressive job title, benefits, pensions and so on.
To the casual bystander, I was living the dream.
But it wasn’t a dream. It was a nightmare.
I was working in a ‘survival of the loudest’ environment, where your worth was measured by how well you could promote and network yourself.
It was a place where relationships were forged over urinals and on golf courses.
If you didn’t play the greens, then your chances of promotion were next to zero. Unless of course you became a ruthless alpha female.
My negative experience of this toxic work environment didn’t just restrict itself to the office. It came home with me too, and pervaded my every waking and sleeping moment.
As a mother of two young children, I couldn’t compete. I couldn’t even keep up. I felt guilty most of the time.
Guilty at work hoping my children were still able to enjoy their sports day without me there to share their moment of glory.
Guilty at home when I’d left other team members to work into the night on a deadline, so that I could spend 10 minutes with my boys before they went to bed.
The crunch point came one day when my manager called me up on Saturday evening. He told me I needed to go to Ireland on the Monday for an important meeting with a big client.
I told him I couldn’t, as it was my son’s first day at school and I want to be with him for it.
There was a pause.
And then he said to me:
‘Helen – you need to get your priorities right’.
And so I did.
Without any real idea of what I was going to do next.
But this experience gave light to the fire of a purpose.
And that was to do something – anything – about the employee experience. To educate, to challenge, to do whatever I could to make it better for people like me.
To be included in the top 100 employee engagement influencers list this year gave me such a buzz, and boosted my determination to keep working at it.
Because there is still such a lot of to do!
Of course, there have been some improvements over the last 20 years.
Collectively, organisations are more aware of the importance of an engaged workforce, and an entire profession is blossoming from this critical awakening.
But having a ‘people strategy’ isn’t enough. Until everyone buys into the idea that people are the strategy, then I don’t think we’ll ever really make the fundamental breakthroughs that are required to positively revolutionise the experience of work.
It’s not that we don’t have the answers to resolving disengagement or boosting wellbeing at work. We do.
Treat people with respect and trust.
Set realistic expectations.
Help them feel that they’re contributing to achieving something important.
Genuinely recognise their efforts.
Let them play to their strengths, and support them to grow and develop.
Foster kindness, compassion and generosity.
In short, make it human.
It might seem simple, but it’s incredibly hard to do because, on the whole, organisations are not structured to allow people to flourish.
They are structured to make bank accounts, market share and shareholder value flourish. And in that mix, people are, and remain a dispensable resource.
In my opinion, hierarchies often create competition, not collaboration. Bonus structures focus attention on the numbers, not the people.
Have you ever heard someone ask – what will be the impact on the health of our people if we increase our revenue target by 5%?
After decades of study into the human psyche and getting to the nub of what engages people, I have a good sense of what is most likely to connect people.
Considered dialogue, interaction, conversation, feedback mechanisms, experiential activities, hands-on involvement from leadership, training and support for managers – actions that get people involved, ensuring they are listened to and feeling part of something great.
But these ‘people focused’ activities often get stripped out of corporate programmes or strategies because it’s too difficult, or because there isn’t the time, or because it won’t get approval at board level, because we don’t have the budget, because we can’t reach that audience, because we can’t free our people up, and so on.
Often what’s left is a toolkit of push materials that are distributed ad hoc and left to the discretion of managers on how and where to share them. If they even bother.
The switched-on people we work with know this. They share our frustration. They want to do what is right.
But they are handcuffed by centuries-old ways of working. They are fighting against complex organisational systems, where the here-and-now of hitting the numbers is what matters most.
Where self-preservation, politics, egos, targets, reputation and endurance have de-humanised the world of work for people.
To show kindness, vulnerability, openness, and compassion, to put your trust in others, to take risks, and to admit you don’t have all the answers is the antithesis of corporate survival. But it’s exactly what is needed to humanise the experience of work.
I often think that until organisational structures, objectives and priorities change, it’s hard to see how we can fully transition out of the echo chamber of good intention and proven best practice around employee engagement.
Perhaps it will only happen when the health, happiness and wellbeing of the people is escalated as a top priority at board level – becoming THE measure of success.
Because we all know that if employee engagement was the number-one focus, then other key metrics like revenue, profit, and productivity would naturally be optimised too.
John Maynard Keynes says that the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas, as in escaping from old ones.
It’s an apt reminder that improving the employee experience isn’t just about bringing in the new; it’s as much about challenging the old.
My personal experience of work back then still helps me wake up every day feeling fully engaged and determined to keep challenging the status quo.
It doesn’t just make business sense to keep challenging and finding ways to improve the experience of work for everyone.
Morally – it’s the right thing to do.