The ‘Well-Being-Engagement Paradox’ Explains Why You Suddenly Can’t Focus on Work as Pandemic Restrictions Loosen

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It makes sense that in the workplace, employee well-being and engagement levels would rise and fall in tandem, right? Because ostensibly, the happier and healthier people are, the more inspired and interested in their work they’ll be. According to Gallup, which has tracked employee well-being and engagement levels for over a decade, that's exactly what has been the case. Until now, that is. According to new research by Gallup, over the course of 2020, employee wellness actually diverged with levels of engagement at work, creating what is being referred to as the Well-Being-Engagement Paradox.

Experts In This Article
  • Jennifer Anna Chatman, PhD, Jennifer Anna Chatman, PhD, is a professor of management and associate dean for learning strategies at Berkeley Haas. She focuses on organizational culture for firm performance and leading high-performance teams.
  • Winny Shen, PhD, Winny Shen, PhD, is an organizational psychologist who studies well-being in the workplace.

According to the report, feelings of stress, worry, and exhaustion levels among employees spiked last year, leading overall well-being to plummet. But instead of engagement levels dropping, too (as they likely normally would have), they remained steadfast and “even reached new record multiple highs throughout the summer…” But why?

“Work helped people to maintain some sense of normalcy, even for those who were working remotely," says organizational psychologist Jennifer Anna Chatman, PhD. “It’s not just about remote work—though people definitely appreciate the flexibility—but more about a sense of normalcy amidst change.” Basically, with so much about life changing in quarantine and compromising general well-being in the process, for those able to work remotely, the environment provided a sense of familiarity and appealed to a sense of their “regular” life. So as well-being waned, work engagement surged.

It's also possible that people threw themselves into their work as a way to escape reality or ground themselves from the constant stress and worries that come with living through a pandemic. “Work is a pathway in which we can meet a lot of our needs,” says Winny Shen, PhD, an organizational psychologist who studies well-being in the workplace. “Engagement or investing yourself in your work can help you replenish resources and really buffer some of the anxieties you might be feeling about current issues.”

As pandemic restrictions loosen…leading to an uptick in sense of well-being and fulfillment, folks may be experiencing less engagement in work.

All of that being true, work is not a sustainable form of escapism for most people—and it's also not a sustainable model of working that employers should expect from their teams. Expecting engagement to rise with factors like unrealistic deadlines, a constant stream of emails, or long hours simply won't last forever—and as pandemic restrictions loosen, we may begin to see effects of exactly that. As folks begin slowly making plans and returning to pre-pandemic ways of life, ostensibly leading to an uptick in sense of well-being and fulfillment, they may even experience less engagement in work, given the Well-Being Engagement Paradox.

So, companies and employees alike should be aware of the Well-Being-Engagement Paradox, because people should be able to thrive personally and professionally rather than having to choose one or the other. With that in mind, Dr. Shen offers suggestions below for leaders and workers, respectively, to avoid having the Well-Being-Engagement Paradox take hold of their teams or themselves.

How leaders can avoid the Well-Being-Engagement Paradox taking hold of their teams

1. Be kind and transparent in your decision-making process

“People are really anxious and want as much information as possible,” says Dr. Shen. So, avoid spooking your team with any organizational surprises.

2. Foster community

Zoom fatigue aside, we miss seeing people and making small talk. So, Dr. Shen suggests finding ways to facilitate interactions between remote workers. “Encourage more casual interactions,” she says. “Give people a few minutes before a meeting just to catch up . We want to respect people’s time but it’s important to try and maintain a human element.”

3. Teach your managers how to support your employees

When it comes to well-being, supervisors aren’t always trained to handle mental distress. Companies should invest in the training for all managers and provide them with tools to encourage communication and handle employee disclosures.

How employees can protect themselves from the Well-Being-Engagement Paradox

1. Practice self-compassion

Remember that you’re working through a pandemic. Things are not normal, and they’re not easy. Try not to kick yourself when you’re down.

2. Limit the doomscrolling

It’s important to be informed, but if it’s elevating your stress and worry levels, Dr. Shen says it's time to take a step back. That means being conscious and disciplined about your news consumption, and knowing when to take a break for your mental health.

3. Have honest conversations with your manager

If you feel comfortable, you can confide in your manager that your well-being might not be where it used to be. “To build trust, we often have to be vulnerable,” says Dr. Shen. “I think it’s worth [going to your manager] if you need that support.”

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