State of Employee Engagement in SA

What We Do

Research findings from a survey on the State of Employee Engagement
in South Africa

September 2014

A third of our workforce are disengaged

In a recent study of employed South Africans, Echelon Purple, an employee engagement consultancy, found that one in every three employees is disengaged from their job or employer. These employees pose a serious risk to organisational effectiveness and the business success of their employers.

What does it mean to be disengaged?

Disengaged employees have lost connection to both their organisations and the purposeness of what they do there. Either they come to work because they must (not because they want to), or if they want to, it is with little intention of contributing constructively while being there. Whichever the case, all disengaged employees are characterised by low levels of activation at work. In other words, they bring little of themselves to their jobs, doing just enough to get by and not get into trouble. Emotionally, they have either signed out from their organisation, are tired, despondent or will operate in a passive, indifferent zone. They feel no attraction to what they do or the organisation for whom they are doing it.

How do truly engaged employees feel and act?

Truly engaged employees see purpose in what they do at work and feel that they matter to their organisation. They are characterised by high levels of activation and bring much of themselves to work. They take personal pride in what they do and how they do it. Typically, engaged employees are optimistic, receptive and enthusiastic about what they do and the organisation for whom they are doing it.

The two primary components of employee engagement are attraction and activation. These two dimensions of employees’ state of mind shape the level and character of employees’ relationship with their employer and form a typology of employee engagement. Engaged individuals are characterised by strong and balanced activation and attraction. Disengaged individuals have a generally weak relationship with their work and employer on both dimensions.

Echelon Purple’s research found that while 34% of employees in South Africa can be classified as disengaged, only 38% are truly engaged with their employer. The remaining 28% form a diverse typology of deviant work-related behaviours, characterised by unbalanced components of activation and attraction. If left to their own devices, with no constructive intervention, this 28% will gradually become truly disengaged. Their unbalanced position is not sustainable. If activated only, they will face burnout with all its consequences. If attracted only, they will fall into work decadency, a situation that cannot last forever.

Does pay influence employees’ level of engagement?

Echelon Purple’s research shows that employee engagement has a strong socio-economic component that reaches far beyond the pay cheque.

Although not directly linked to or caused by personal earnings, in principle, higher socio-economic status of staff corresponds with higher levels of engagement. This has far-reaching implications for organisations. Employees do not join organisations with a blank state of mind. They bring into the workspace their own day-to-day reality, fears, expectations and hopes. Their daily life experiences shape their initial state of mind and organisations have a responsibility to help shape this further. This often includes assisting staff to overcome their often defensive, protective and mostly reactive behaviours.

Employees from lower lower socio-economic groups usually occupy lower job grades, mostly because of their lack of education or other forms of qualification. Many of these individuals are focused on getting from one pay cheque to the next in order to survive. As a result, it is understandable that many of these individuals easily miss the bigger work picture of how their job fits into the overall organisational vision and what the real purpose is of what they do. This insulated view from the bottom of the job pyramid is also a limiting factor with respect to their personal growth and further career development.

The challenge therefore lies in the degree to which organisations are able to create a greater sense of purposeness and connectedness among employees of all profiles and grades. Those who succeed in the process should witness increased employee engagement and consequently better organisational efficiency and business results.

This finding serves both as a warning and an opportunity for many organisations. Complex upliftment of employees is a prerequisite for better return on investment. There is an onus on employers to share and communicate why a company or organisation is doing what they are doing, who the recipients of the outcome of their work are and how these customers, for a lack of a better word, are benefiting. Therefore organisations should help employees to connect the dots between what they do, why they are doing it and what the true purpose of their hard work is. 

Do different generations respond differently to engagement?

Different generations of employees have different value sets, criteria for motivations and expectations of their employer and job. All this influences how they experience their workplace and how they choose to position themselves within it. 

The bottom-end Gen Y (18-24 years old)

These young people usually enter the workplace loaded with enthusiasm, expectation and hope that their employer of choice will meet the initial promise made to them. This makes them activated, positive and highly engaged individuals. Their engagement readings are typically among the highest recorded. 

The top-end Gen Y (25-29 years old)

This generation of employees has usually spent sufficient time within an organisation to reach the stage where, for the first time, they are able to seriously reconsider their employer of choice. Is this job and employer what they expected it to be? Do they have to sacrifice above expectation? Is the reward adequate? Is this organisation still relevant to them – is this job really what they want to be doing and importantly, for whom they want to be doing it? Furthermore, because of their age and their growing work experience, future growth within the organisation as well as related stability become important factors for consideration. It is a generally accepted view that this generation is the incubator for any company’s future success and therefore it is essential that talented employees from this age group are retained. These are the young people who will take over the burden and challenges that lie ahead of every business they choose to be part of.

However, Echelon Purple’s research has confirmed that this age group is the least engaged group across the whole spectrum of employees.

The divergence seen within Gen Y serves as a warning to organisations and requires attention. Our research findings also confirm that if this generation cannot find personal fulfilment and individual gain in their job and employer, the company or organisation will gain very little from them. The negative effects of lost promise ripple sharply here. The purpose imperative is far more prevalent in this generation than in any other. They will change employer and even the direction of their career in an effort to follow their expectations and hopes in pursuit of a meaningful career and a better quality life. 

The bottom-end Gen X (30-44 years old)

This generation functions at average levels of engagement. This age group seems to be more content with their employer and particular working conditions. They are the ‘vanilla’ of engagement when compared to other generations. They do not shoot the lights out on the engagement scale and more often than not require constructive discussion with their supervisors. Although they are highly activated, they seem to start losing connection with their organisation and become more task and service oriented rather than driven by organisational interests and goals. 

The top-end Gen X (45-49 years old)

More than all other generations, this group has a clear vision of their place within the organisation and possible resultant career paths. Our research has shown that this age group is characterised by the highest overall engagement levels which assumes not only a high contribution rate but also high attraction to their job and employer.

They are capable of performing well even in a disorganised environment due to very high levels of self-motivation and self-sufficiency. As a result, softer issues such as the pursuit of purpose like we have seen amongst Gen Y do not really touch them in the same way. They are self-starters with regard to purposeness and organisations need not spend resources to connect the dots for them: this group of X-ers is capable of doing it themselves. They are the current reality and enablers of organisational success, but they are not the pillars of its future. This role belongs to Gen Y with all their complexity, divergence and resulting challenges for every employer.

It is however important that organisations maintain the existing high levels of engagement and general goodwill that this group exhibit. 

Baby Boomers (50 years and above)

Traditionally Baby Boomers are the loyalty-driven generation whose levels of attraction and activation towards their job and employer should always be somewhat unbalanced tipped in favour of attraction. But, because of the contemporary work environment in which they function today, attraction to their work is starting to lose its spark. Very few of them will allow their work to be compromised, they are still inherently activated, but one cannot resist illustrating them as somewhat grumpy contributors. Providing more purpose to their role within an organisation can easily turn them into highly engaged employees again. Their experience is incomparable, their values are strong and most often organisation driven. What they need is a little adjustment to their role. It can often turn them into excellent and dedicated mentors and consultants. 

What then drives high levels of employee engagement? What should organisations do to increase the levels of engagement among their employees?

If you want your employees to be more engaged and as such stay with your organisation for the right reasons, our research indicates that they require purposeful connection to their work and their employer. Being connected requires a strong sense of attraction, i.e. looking forward to coming to work (at this particular organisation), combined with activation which refers to high levels of energy and positive emotion being brought to work. Both aspects of this interconnectedness build up employee engagement.

Over time research has shown that employee engagement can be affected by a number of factors. How employees experience or perceive these factors will determine their level and typology of engagement. The most common and impactful levers of engagement are perceived fairness at work, trust in employees, creating a caring and understanding environment, and creating a sense of achievement in what employees do.

In short, employees expect employers to:

  • Help them connect what they do to purposeness. Teach them why they matter and why the work that they do matters.
  • Be consistent and transparent in what you, the employer, do.
  • Show them that you really care about them. Understand them, their circumstances and their challenges.
  • Acknowledge them and the things they do. Create feelings of accomplishment that are wider than their job description.
  • Trust them to get on with the job that you hired them to do.

In our experience, appropriate responses by organisations to create a more engaged workforce are not expensive and often carry a zero price tag. Often successful interventions require an adjustment in management style, which must be promoted and supported by the highest levels of the organisation. Every step that turns stiff industrial subordination into more of a mentoring and coaching practice is a step towards enhanced employee engagement and increased organisational effectiveness.