Lesley Brown

Regional Practice Leader
Employee Surveys and Insights

A recent study by Towers Watson found that only two in five workers (39%) in Asia Pacific are highly engaged at work. The rest, three-fifths of the workforce, are struggling to cope with work situations that do not provide adequate support and emotional connection. These workers are not consistently productive and they lack the willingness to go the extra mile for their employers. The lack of employee engagement translates to a cost for their employers in terms of loss in productivity, lower work performance and high staff turnover.

The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study polled more than 9,000 employees in Asia Pacific on their attitudes and moods at a time of continuing economic uncertainty and constant change in the workplace. While employee engagement varies widely across the region, the study found that in general, employees are working more hours, feeling more stress and are anxious about their financial future. Many also expressed concern about trust in their company’s leadership, the support they receive from managers and the ability to build careers in their current organisations. A major issue is low sustainable engagement.

Sustainable engagement, which refers to employees maintaining a positive connection to their companies that yields consistent productivity, is the sum of three distinct elements. The first is traditional engagement, defined as employees’ commitment to the organisation and willingness to give extra effort to their employer. The second is enablement, defined as having the tools, resources, and support to get work done efficiently. The third is energy, defined as a work environment that actively supports physical, emotional and interpersonal well-being. Effective performance depends on all three elements of sustainable engagement. When the three elements are well balanced, employees are highly engaged in a way that yields sustainable productivity over time.

The cost of disengaged employees

Companies have known for a long time that work performance is tightly linked to employee engagement. Towers Watson has found in earlier research that the average operating margin of companies with sustainably engaged employees is three times as much as those with a low level of employee engagement.

Apart from operating margin, sustainable engagement affects productivity and staff retention. Organisations with highly engaged employees report loss of an average of 7.6 workdays per year, whereas organisations with disengaged employees lost 14.1 workdays, or almost twice as many workdays per year. Significantly, disengaged employees are more likely to leave their organisations. Research shows that 58% of disengaged employees compared with 17.1% of employees with high engagement, are high retention risks.

Sustainable engagement and the Asia Pacific workforce

Asia Pacific is a diverse region and employee engagement levels vary in different countries. In fast-growing economies such as China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines, employee engagement levels are much higher than in the developed economies including Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Nonetheless, in both the fast-growing and developed economies, talent attraction and retention remain key challenges for organisations. Employers in fast-growing economies find that attracting critical skill employees is their biggest challenge. They also find it hard to retain fresh graduates. On the other hand, employers in the developed economies have difficulty recruiting fresh graduates. Given the intense competition for workers, an effective talent attraction and retention strategy requires keeping employees engaged.

In addition, the correlation between employee engagement and corporate performance means the opportunity exists for every organisation to improve business performance by raising sustainable engagement. To do this, employers need to examine a number of elements in the work environment that affect their employees.

Stress, Work-life Balance and Workload

From the study, Stress, Work-life Balance and Workload is collectively identified as the most important driver for sustainable engagement. However, workers are struggling to cope in this aspect.

Workers in Asia Pacific are stressed. More than 40% of the workers are bothered by work stress. Paid time-off is under-utilised, especially in fast-growing economies including China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, where more than half of the workforce reported using fewer paid time-off days than in the past.

Moving forward, more than half of the employees in the region also expect to work more hours than normal in the next three years.

Excessive work pressure is a factor pushing people out of their companies. Of those who are likely to leave their companies within the next two years, 61% admitted they are often bothered by excessive pressure on the job.

However, it appears that leaders’ perceived interest in employee well-being can mitigate the effect of excessive job pressures. The study found that leadership is a key factor driving sustainable engagement. Among many other leaders attributes, what counts for employees is whether their leaders show a sincere interest in their well-being. While workers are generally critical about their senior corporate leadership, in companies where there is perceived interest in employee well-being, workers are more favourable towards their leaders.

Communication and Empowerment

In a number of Asia Pacific countries, effective communication and empowerment is another factor for sustaining employee engagement levels. This is most prominent in China where employees who feel their organisation keeps them informed of the company’s values, goals and performance are more engaged. Likewise, employees who believe management takes the time to listen to and act on their suggestions are more engaged. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, the survey data reveals that a shared view of organisational goals and objectives drives sustainable engagement. Unfortunately, there is a gap in effective communication of goals and objectives.

A significant observation is the central role of managers in enablement, energy and traditional engagement. The role of the direct manager has shifted from being a technical expert that directs the work of employees to more of a leader who can motivate and coach their subordinates. Indeed, many employees have high expectations of their managers as ‘people managers’ rather than task managers.

Managers who make sure their subordinates have adequate tools, resources and support to make the best possible use of their skills, and who assign tasks suited to the skills of their subordinates are viewed more favourably. They help enhance shared accountability and sustainable engagement. Managers who can communicate goals clearly can help to alleviate pressure and set boundaries around an employee’s workload. In this way, they have significant influence over employee engagement.