People@Work: The Growing Strains Between Employees and Employers


The world of business is filled with jargon, which often includes redundant words and tortured syntax. Think price point, incentivize, core competencies or value add. Engagement, an otherwise benign word, takes on a different meaning in the workplace when used to define employees' level of enthusiasm or motivation on the job.

Worker engagement, or its less-jargony cousin, morale, is an important component of nearly any business. Lack of engagement can cause reduced productivity, disgruntled customers, slower response times and more -- all of which can affect a company's bottom line.

In its most recent quarterly study of employee engagement, Hewitt Associates (HEW) found that nearly nearly half of the 900 organizations it surveyed saw a significant drop in this metric, the largest decline the human-resource consultancy observed since it first began its research 15 years ago.

"The Stress Continues to Increase"

The findings, culled from companies' own surveys on the topic, highlight a growing tension between employers -- many of which are struggling to stabilize their financial situation -- and employees, who are showing fatigue in response to a lengthy period of stress, uncertainty and confusion brought about by the recession and their company's actions, Hewitt says.

Further, employees who have survived layoffs have too-often found they're the ones picking up the slack created by their departed colleagues.

"The economic situation over the past two years has clearly strained the connection between employers and employees, and the stress continues to increase," says Ted Marusarz, leader of Global Engagement and Culture at Hewitt.

Pushed to the Limit

One prescient example of the growing tension between employers and workers is Steven Slater, the JetBlue Airways (JBLU) flight attendant who a week ago decided he'd had enough of his job -- while still on the job. Airline employees, as much as those in any other sector, have experienced increased stress. Busier flights, more security precautions, wage concessions and a host of other issues have pushed many to the limit, which is where Slater found himself last Monday.

After a long flight that included an exchange of words with an unruly passenger and a gash to his head caused by her luggage, Slater let loose a flurry expletives over the airplane's public address system, then deployed the emergency evacuation chute and slid down to the tarmac at Kennedy International Airport and into notoriety. To say the least, Slater wasn't engaged. It could be said, in fact, that he had become disengaged -- or even unhinged.

Slater was later arrested at his home in Queens and charged with felony counts of criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. But in the aftermath of his actions, he has become of folk hero of sorts to many workers, which likely affirms Hewitt's findings. Though most workers wouldn't likely emulate Slater's behavior, they surely feel as frustrated as he did.

The effort to reengage workers falls largely to the organizations that employ them, Hewitt says, and they need to act prudently or risk losing top talent when the economy finally does turn around. Stressed-out workers can hold on only for so long before they, too, begin looking for the emergency exit.