A Surprising Key to Unlock Employee Engagement

Best-selling author Dan Goleman says there’s a straightforward tactic that could go a long way toward improving worker well-being.

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and of the forthcoming Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

According to the Conference Board, the majority of CEOs have given up on trying to get employees back to the office full-time. Only 4% of US CEOs say that establishing peoples’ work locations is a priority for the coming year. Instead, the number-one focus is, as it so often is, how to attract and retain top talent. This is particularly true given the shifting economic conditions. According to Korn Ferry, four in ten firms say they plan layoffs in the New Year. As these cuts loom, having the right people in the right positions—and keeping them there—matters more than ever.

Given the state of the world and the persistence of workplace burnout, employee engagement may come down to one critical factor—whether or not an employee feels well. My new book, Optimal, reviews a study from the Harvard Business School in which hundreds of working men and women kept journals of how they felt at work and considered the ingredients of a “good day.” Among these ingredients: feeling a sense of meaning.

Feeling a sense of meaning takes on new importance these days, when mental health is on the decline—particularly in the US—and layoffs can evoke a good degree of suffering. Fear amps up, morale declines, and those who do keep their jobs find themselves working overtime in order to pick up the responsibilities that suddenly have nowhere to go.

While the conversation around employee well-being isn’t new, most companies still haven’t figured it out. Over the past five years, more and more organizations have invested in things like quiet rooms, yoga classes, and meditation apps—interventions that aim to help employees manage stress, and do so, to a degree. But a recent study from the UK found that steps like these don’t have as strong an association as we might assume with markedly improving how employees feel.

In other words, such things make far less of an impact than an entirely different, perhaps unexpected activity: whether or not employees volunteer.

A sense of purpose remains one of the most critical factors in our individual and collective health and happiness. The study found that employees who volunteer for charitable causes, with the support of their workplace, report higher well-being, on average. “Volunteering does not immediately appear comparable with the other interventions,” the researchers wrote. “It is generally promoting a good life, it involves individual behavior and active participation and is linked to well-being through psychological improvement.”

For some, this may not come as a surprise. Take Cisco as an example—the tech company that is number one on both the 100 Best Companies to Work for List and the Companies That Care List. During the pandemic, Cisco increased their Time2Give benefit from five paid volunteer days to 10, giving employees two weeks of paid time off to contribute to the communities and causes they are passionate about, in person or virtually. Cisco’s attrition rates hover well below the industry average—a testament to people’s loyalty.

One reason volunteering goes such a long way towards bolstering employee well-being—and in turn, retention—is that it’s a straightforward way of helping people express their most intrinsically meaningful values. A study of more than 25,000 young adults from 58 countries found that intrinsically meaningful values, like social connections and contributing to one’s community, had a stronger correlation with well-being than did outward-facing values, like those related to power and financial gain.

If the focus of 2024 isn’t about getting people in the office, maybe it’s about getting them out of the office—not permanently, of course, but enough for them to spend more time investing in efforts that align with what matters to them. This may be one of the smartest investments a company can make, even, and especially, in a time of such financial uncertainty. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.