Every year, corporations spend millions of dollars trying to find ways to improve employee productivity. The bottom line of these efforts is always the same: The way people feel at work profoundly influences how they perform.

The key concept is engagement—the level of enthusiasm and dedication workers feel toward their jobs.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll on the state of the American workplace, just 30 percent of employees in America feel engaged at work, yet the impact of disengagement on the corporate bottom line is staggering: According to Gallup estimates, active disengagement costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion per year.

Yes, your level of engagement at work has a significant impact on your company's bottom line—and on your career trajectory.

To find out what determines an employee's level of engagement, Tony Schwartz, chief executive of The Energy Project and Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business teamed up to survey over 20,000 employees in white collar, manufacturing, and financial services positions. They found that regardless of the type of position held or the industry studied, employees were vastly more satisfied and productive, when four core needs were met. The more effective corporate leaders were in assisting their employees to meet these four core needs, the more productive employees were, the more loyalty they felt toward their employers, and the less stressed they felt on the job. In fact, the more needs that were met, the greater the impact on workplace productivity.

The Four Core Needs

Purpose: Having the opportunity to do what one does best, and knowing that it matters.

This factor, hands down, had the greatest impact on employee performance. Employees who believed their work mattered in a "big picture" way were more than three times as likely to stay with their organization, reported 1.7 times higher job satisfaction, and were 1.4 times more engaged at work. In other words, people work for more than money. They work to feel what they are doing makes a difference to their companies and to the world outside their companies.

Feeling valued and appreciated for one's contributions

This is where the impact of bosses and supervisors weighed in heavily. Employees with supportive supervisors were 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and were 67 percent more engaged. We want to feel not just that what we do matters, but that those in positions of authority over us realize that what we do matters, and that we have done our jobs well.

The opportunity to focus on one's most important tasks

The good news is that employees were 50% more engaged when they felt they had the opportunity to focus on one task at a time, and to control when and where the task got done. The bad news is that only 20% of respondents said their job gave them this kind of opportunity.

Opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work.

Taking a break every 90 minutes report yielded a 30 percent higher level of focus compared to taking no breaks or only one break daily. The breaks boosted creative thinking by 50%, and a sense of health and well being by 46%. Reasonable work hours were also crucial. As people worked beyond 40 hours, the worse they felt and performed, and the less engaged they became. Simply put, you can't do a good job if you are running on empty.

If you are feeling skeptical about the importance of engagement to career success, consider this: According to the same 2013 Gallup poll, only 13% of employees about to be fired said they felt actively engaged at work. Active disengagement is a surefire way to the corporate pink slip.

What You Can Do to Become More Engaged

You might be tempted to march into your boss' office armed with these data and demand that management take active steps to improve employee engagement. After all, it is in the best interest of the company, right? Well, as they say, good luck with that one.

A more productive approach is to take control of your own work engagement. Now that you know the four factors that will make you feel more engaged at work, you can take steps to ensure that these factors are in play.

Purpose: According to international best selling author Jon Gordon,

…there’s a flawed perception in our society that in order to live a life of purpose we have to leave our jobs and go solve world hunger, feed the homeless, move to Africa or start a charity. While these are all noble causes and many are called to do these very things, for many of us our bigger purpose can be found in the here and now, in the jobs we have, right under our noses. And when we find and live this purpose it will provide the ultimate fuel for a meaningful life.

Gordon's point is that no matter what job you have now, you can find purpose in it. A good place to start is your company's mission statement. That statement should describe succinctly the company's goals, objectives, and customer base. Surprisingly, according to the 2013 Gallup poll, only about half of managers and one-third of non-managerial level employees understood what their company stood for, and what made it different from competitors. It is difficult to feel a sense of purpose at work if you don't know how your job fits into the "big picture".

Once you understand your company's mission, ask yourself how your job helps your company meet its goals and objectives. Again, here is how Jon Gordon puts it

I heard of a janitor who worked at NASA and even though he was sweeping floors he felt his bigger purpose was contributing to put a man on the moon. I met a bus driver who knows his purpose is to help kids stay off drugs. I received an email from a man in the mortgage business who sees his job as a way to help couples save their marriages by keeping their homes. I know a Popeye's Chicken employee named Edith in the Atlanta Airport who makes thousands of air traveler's smile each day. I found my purpose when, at the peak of my unhappiness, I asked “why am I here and how can I serve.”

Feeling Valued: Perhaps the single biggest mistake employees make with regard to feeling valued at work is failing to make sure that those in positions of authority know about their efforts and accomplishments. You don't need to brag or trivialize others' contributions. But you do need to believe that your contributions mattered, and be emotionally prepared to accept praise when it comes. Frequently, people avoid drawing attention to their accomplishments because they suffer from Imposter Syndrome. If so, read my blog post on that topic.

Focus: Perhaps the best way to improve your focus at work is to change the way you manage email, texts, phone calls, and social media. Don't let them interrupt you when you in the flow of work. Instead, think of these items as "things I do as a reward or break". When you reach a reasonable break point in your work, allow yourself to check your email, listen to your messages, read your texts, or glance at social media.

Recharge: Briefly switching your focus away from work not only improves focus but it also allows your mind a chance to recharge. You have probably experienced this yourself—mulling over a problem for hours to no avail and then having a solution pop into your head a few minutes after you give up. Add to this a quick walk or stretch, and you've got a sure fire way to recharge both physically and mentally. In fact, just the act of standing up every half hour or so is sufficient to slash your risk of diabetes by 30%!

Engagement is vital to your happiness, your health, and your career. Take steps now to boost your level of engagement at work.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins June 9, 2014

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

More information about me can be found on my homepage.

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About the Author

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind.

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