Part one: The New Zealand workforce - are New Zealand workers “disengaged”?

31 May 2011

A recent survey reported by the New Zealand media suggested that more than 60 percent of the workforce either hated their jobs or couldn’t care less as long as they were paid.

This kind of report is not unusual. There are now numerous employee “engagement” surveys generated by consultancy firms, and they typically claim that we are not very turned on by our work.

The concept of engagement is a slippery one. There is no uniform definition, but what is being conveyed is a sense of how interested we are in our jobs, and how much we apply our talents and energies for the benefit of the organisations that employ us.

What, then, are we to make of the reports produced by engagement consultants? Do surveys conducted by social scientists back up their assessments of our attitudes to work? Are we switched off by the job and disappointed in the organisation? Are we simply doing it for the money while reserving our “discretionary effort” for other activities?

The best comparative data we have is contained in the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), an ongoing set of studies on social change around the world which surveyed 1,300 New Zealanders on their work attitudes in 2005.

According to this survey, job security is important to 93 percent of us, and having a high income is important to 70 percent. So, yes, we do care about financial outcomes, which support our lives and personal aspirations.

However, we go to work for much more than just the money. The ISSP survey reports that 97 percent of New Zealanders consider it important to have a job they find interesting. Furthermore, we are socially oriented: 80 percent value a job in which they can help other people, and three-quarters of us want to be useful to society.

The ISSP reports that we are largely happy with our work: 41 percent are highly satisfied with their job while another 42 percent are fairly satisfied… almost exactly the world average. It also indicates that 72 percent are proud to be working for their company and 67 percent are willing to work harder to help it succeed. On both these measures of engagement, we are six points above the world average.

This positive picture is also revealed in national workforce surveys I conducted with Dr Peter Haynes of Waikato University in 2003, and with Associate Professor Keith Macky of AUT University in 2005 and 2009. These surveys were based on random samples of 1,000 New Zealand workers.

What is striking about them is that the vast majority of employees are not negative or ambivalent. In all of them, the distributions for job satisfaction, commitment to the organisation and trust in management fall well on the positive side.

In 2009, 45 percent of Kiwi workers told us they were very satisfied with their jobs, while 35 percent said they were moderately satisfied (the two highest categories on a seven-point scale). The other 20 percent of workers ranged from slightly satisfied to very dissatisfied.

In terms of whether they would be willing to put in a lot of extra effort to help their companies succeed (a typical engagement indicator), 49 percent strongly agreed and 27 percent moderately agreed (the two highest categories).

As a rough rule of thumb, 70 to 80 percent of New Zealanders are fundamentally positive about their work and organisations. This doesn’t rule out some individual disappointments and, indeed, some individuals who are more negative than positive. However, the big picture is healthy, not bleak.

How is it that our story differs from the one typically told by engagement consultants? One reason is that we use a random sample of the national working population. We are not reporting a survey of our clients or of individuals who are searching our website for a job.

Another reason is that we use well-tested measures of employee wellbeing and scales that give a fair sense of the shape of the distribution.

Is there some merit in the current wave of engagement surveys? A problem with attitudes is immediately obvious in small businesses, but surveys can help the large or highly dispersed organisations in which the picture is more opaque or more variable. If the survey is well designed, employee responses can then be connected to data on performance, and problems can be analysed in greater depth.

This is a very good thing, but let’s be clear that the overall picture of work attitudes in New Zealand is positive, not negative. We are not a “basket case” in the world of work attitudes. We can improve, but there is a lot that is healthy in our workplace relations, and we can build on it in ways that enhance productivity and employee wellbeing.

Dr Peter Boxall is Professor of Human Resource Management and Associate Dean of Research at The University of Auckland Business School.