Working Smarter

The Scientific Link That Drives Employee Engagement and Productivity

Posted by Joe Robinson


WHEN YOU ARE HAVING a bad day at work, chances are very good you are also having an unproductive day. Things like verbal cage matches with colleagues and visits from Mr. Murphy and his famous law impact how we think, and, as a result, how we use our thoughts to perform tasks.

Negative mood, stress, and anger are hazardous to performance. They undermine attention, close off the big picture, and keep minds ruminating off topic from the task at hand.


The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson has shown that positive emotions broaden minds, build interest, and energize, while negative emotions restrict thinking, and discourage receptivity to new things and initiative. It stands to reason, then, that employees with a more positive outlook, more satisfied with their work, would tend to be more productive.

And that's what work-life balance studies are finding. In a study where researchers observed employee behavior in meetings for months (behind a trick wall where they could observe the proceedings), Marcial Losada found that people who used more positive language, who were open to the opinions of others, and who didn’t retreat into defensive and pessimistic postures had higher sales, were more productive, and had better rapport with their colleagues.

One of the things that makes people feel positive at work is work-life balance. People who feel they have good work-life balance work 21% harder than those who don’t, according to a survey from the Corporate Executive Board, which represents 80% of Fortune 500 companies. That extra effort is the definition of the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. This is why employee development programs, such as our work-life balance program, Work Smarter, Live Better, and our engagagement training, Supercharging Engagement, are so valuable for talent and the bottom-line.

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Contrast that with the negative effect work-life conflict has on employee performance—reduced work effort and performance and increased absenteeism and turnover (Anderson, Coffey, Byerly, 2002), reduced health and energy (Frone, Rusee, Barnes, 1996), and increased stress and burnout (Anderson et al, 2002). 


There is a direct and much overlooked link between work-life balance and employee engagement. People who feel they have some flexibility in how they do their tasks and take care of their home and life responsibilities respond in a proactive way that mirrors the engagement outcome every organization wants. They do more.

At work here is something called social exchange theory in the academic world. The organization offers something that benefits the employee, and the employee reciprocates in the form of going beyond the call of duty. 

“When treated favorably by the organization, employees will feel obliged to respond in kind, through positive attitudes or behaviors toward the source of the treatment,” explain T. Alexandra Beauregard and Leslie Henry in a meta study on the link between work-life balance and organization performance. “Using the provision of work-life balance practices as an indicator of favorable treatment, employees will reciprocate in ways beneficial to the organization – increased commitment, satisfaction with one’s job, and citizenship behaviors,”

Those behaviors are straight out of the employee engagement handbook, producing two of the main domains of engagement—dedication (commitment) and vigor/energy (citizenship behaviors), which drives the initiative of discretionary effort. They are highly sought-after traits, since, as Gallup reports, engaged employees are 28% more productive and the vast majority of people are unengaged. Only 31% of employees are engaged, with 51% not engaged and 17.5% actively disengaged.


In my employee development programs I see companies that want to increase engagement but don’t quite know how. I have found that work-life balance programs can provide the initial spark, swinging the door wide open to the conditions that prime engagement behaviors.

One of the most powerful factors in engagement is having a sense that you are valued and trusted. Work-life programs that allow flexibility in how tasks are done, where they are done, or when they are done give employees that sense of value with the vote of confidence that comes with choice, options, and responsibility.

Given a choice in how they work, people can work at time of peak productivity and alertness to maximize their productivity (Shepard et al, 1996), freeing up more time for other responsibilities and needs, or they can work more during the company’s crunch time, with a payoff of schedule flexibility later.


We know from the research on human motivation that promoting choice and self-responsibility satisfy deep psychological needs, such as autonomy. That makes people feel competent and want to do more. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns says that the root of satisfaction comes from doing things that make us stretch or challenge us. The reward of a job well done is the brain’s party drug of dopamine, the chemical signature of satisfaction.

The payoff of a more engaged workforce is greater effort that leads to increased performance. That should lead to higher output that increases company value. Research shows just that. Work-life balance can have some pretty amazing effects on the bottom line. One study (Arthur, 2003) found that after companies started work-life initiatives, shareholder returns increased $60 million per firm in the study. That’s a WOW, ladies and gentlemen. And, like they say on the infomercials, there’s more!

A meta study that looked at the effect of one work-life practice, telework, on performance (Pitt-Catsouphes, Marchetta, 1991) found that productivity went up 10% to 30%. Reason: People worked more hours at home than in the office but enjoyed it more because they had more control over their time. Another report (Perry-Smith and Blum, 2000) analyzed performance at 527 U. S. companies and found that firms with a wider range of work-life practices had greater performance, profit-sales growth, and organizational performance.


Attitudes drive effort or the lack of it, no doubt along the same positive v. negative track of openness and initiative v. cynicism and disengagement. Studies show a connection between work schedule flexibility and satisfaction. Gaining more control over work-life conflict makes people feel less stressed, less guilt, and, in turn, grateful to the company. The reciprocation comes in the form of increased organizational commitment and reduced turnover intentions (Aryee, Luk, Stone, 1998; Halpern, 2005; Houston, Waumsley, 2003). People also want to make sure they stay at a company with a good work-life policy, so they put in extra effort to remain there.

Hopefully, the research will help more leaders to see the real connection between work-life balance practices and employee engagement. Work-life balance practices are a statement to any firm’s most important asset, its human capital, that, yes, they are valued and trusted.

It’s a no-brainer that people feeling good about themselves and their work are going to be more committed and engaged. When they have options to work more effectively, tools to manage demands and devices, and schedules that allow for flexibility to minimize work-life conflict, they go beyond the call of duty. And no one has to tell them to.

If you would like to learn more about how a work-life balance development program or employee engagement training can supercharge your team, click the button below for more details.

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