The way we're working isn't working. Even if you're lucky enough to have a job, you're probably not very excited to get to the office in the morning, you don't feel much appreciated while you're there, you find it difficult to get your most important work accomplished, amid all the distractions, and you don't believe that what you're doing makes much of a difference anyway. By the time you get home, you're pretty much running on empty, and yet still answering emails until you fall asleep.
Increasingly, this experience is common.
Just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, according to a 2013 report by Gallup. Around the world, across 142 countries, the proportion of employees who feel engaged at work is just 13 percent.
For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it's getting worse.
Demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity — draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life. Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession workforce add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours.
Our company, The Energy Project, works with organizations and their leaders to improve employee engagement and more sustainable performance. Curious to understand what most influences people's engagement and productivity at work, we partnered with the Harvard Business Review to conduct a survey of more than 12,000 mostly white-collar employees across a broad range of companies and industries.
Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.
The more effectively leaders and organizations support employees in meeting these core needs, the more likely the employees are to experience engagement, loyalty, job satisfaction and positive energy at work, and the lower their perceived levels of stress.
Put simply, the way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform. What our study revealed is just how much impact companies can have when they meet each of the four core needs of their employees.
Employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being. The more hours people work beyond 40 — and the more continuously they work — the worse they feel, and the less engaged they become. By contrast, feeling encouraged by one's supervisor to take breaks increases by nearly 100 percent people's likelihood to stay with any given company, and also doubles their sense of health and well-being.
Feeling cared for by one's supervisor has a more significant impact on people's sense of trust and safety than any other behavior by a leader. Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67 percent more engaged.
Only 20 percent of respondents said they were able to focus on one task at a time at work, but those who could were 50 percent more engaged. Similarly, only one-third of respondents said they were able to effectively prioritize their tasks, but those who did were 1.6 times better able to focus on one thing at a time.
Employees who derive meaning and significance from their work were more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations — the highest single impact of any variable in our survey. These employees also reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and they were 1.4 times more engaged at work.
We often ask senior leaders a simple question: If your employees feel more energized, valued, focused and purposeful, do they perform better? Not surprisingly, the answer is almost always "Yes." Next we ask, "So how much do you invest in meeting those needs?" An uncomfortable silence typically ensues.
How to explain this disconnect?
The most obvious answer is that systematically investing in employees, beyond paying them a salary, didn't seem necessary until recently. So long as employees were able to meet work demands, employers were under no pressure to address their more complex needs. Increasingly, however, employers are recognizing that the relentless stress of increased demand — caused in large part by digital technology — simply must be addressed.
Still, the forces of habit and inertia remain powerful obstacles to better meeting employee needs. For example, our study found that employees have a deep desire for flexibility about where and when they work — and far higher engagement when they have more choice. But many employers remain fearful that employees won't accomplish their work without constant oversight — a belief that ironically feeds the distrust of their employees.
A truly human-centered organization puts its people first — even above customers — because it recognizes that they are the key to creating long-term value. Costco, for example, pays its average worker $20.89 an hour, BusinessWeek reported last year, about 65 percent more than Wal-Mart, which owns its biggest competitor, Sam's Club. Over time, Costco's huge investment in employees - including offering benefits to part-time workers — has proved to be a distinct advantage.
Costco's employees generate nearly twice the sales of Sam's Club employees. Costco has about 5 percent turnover among employees who stay at least a year, and the overall rate is far lower than that of Wal-Mart. In turn, the reduced costs of recruiting and training new employees saves Costco several hundred million dollars a year. Between 2003 and 2013, Costco's stock rose more than 200 percent, compared with about 50 percent for Wal-Mart's. What will prompt more companies to invest more in their employees?
In a numbers-driven world, the most compelling argument for change is the growing evidence that meeting the needs of employees fuels their productivity, loyalty and performance. The simplest way for companies to take on this challenge is to ask a basic question: "What would make our employees feel more energized, better taken care of, more focused and more inspired?" It costs nothing, for example, to mandate that meetings run no longer than 90 minutes, or to set boundaries around when people are expected to answer email and how quickly they're expected to respond. Other basic steps we've seen client companies take is to create fitness facilities and nap rooms, and to provide healthy, high-quality food free, or at subsidized prices.
It also makes a big difference to explicitly reward leaders and managers who exhibit empathy, care and humility, and to hold them accountable for relying on anger or other demeaning emotions that may drive short-term results but also create a toxic climate over time — with enormous costs. Also, as our study makes clear, employees are far more engaged when their work gives them an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.
Tony Schwartz is CEO of The Energy Project, a consulting firm. Christine Porath is an associate professor at Georgetown University and a consultant to The Energy Project.