In our 1997 book The Truth about Burnout, Christina Maslach and I defined work engagement as the opposite of burnout. This innovation answered an important question. Rather than concede that the alternative to burnout is simply a neutral state, we proposed an active condition of energy, involvement, and efficacy that we called work engagement. These three qualities are the direct opposite of burnout’s exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.
Our idea shifted burnout from being a unique life experience to an endpoint in a continuum of connections that people form with their work. This perspective changed the question away from figuring out whether or not someone was burned out. Instead, the question became placing a person or a group or a company on a scale. On one end is burnout. On the other end is work engagement. In between are the mix of experiences that define day-to-day worklife.
Work engagement differs from existing concepts, such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, or job involvement. Work engagement has closer ties to the core psychological qualities of people at work. Rather than focusing on employees’ evaluation of the working conditions, the qualities underlying work engagement and burnout concern the way people feel about being at work. People respond to settings that energize them. Their sense of involvement in activities, projects, or people defines whether they can find satisfaction or fulfillment in this work. Their sense of efficacy gives them confidence to work up to their potential.
Work engagement defines for leaders a clear agenda for developing a productive and fulfilling work environment. I’ll be considering those features in the upcoming posts.