How to create engaged workplaces

Tips for how managers can improve employee engagement

By Andrea Bodie
Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Employee engagement has high costs.

According to research Sylvia (yes, like Cher or Usher, she goes by one name) presented at First Line Managers Day in May 2015, about 75 per cent of the workforce is disengaged or actively disengaged.

That’s concerning, because anybody who has been cranky after talking to a negative coworker realizes disengagement can be contagious.

“One bad apple gets things rolling,” said Sylvia, who also works as an occupational therapist at Seven Oaks General Hospital. “That’s why it’s so important to walk away from those disgruntled, miserable people. If you see people like this in your workforce, take them out – give them a little tune up, have a little chat with them. Don’t let anybody’s disengagement foster your own.”

She went on to explore how it’s each individual’s responsibility to bring a good attitude to work.

And to managers, Sylvia offered this advice: don’t let that disengaged, toxic employee infect your team. “They will and it will not go well.”

What’s in it for an organization if employees are engaged?

Improving the bottom line, for one thing. Research shows that engaged workplaces have little turnover. It’s estimated that the replacement costs of the workforce in Canada is $5 billion. Disengaged employees cost employees anywhere from $350 - $550 billion each year.

“Retention is everyone’s business,” said Sylvia. “When my coworker leaves, guess who gets her workload?”

“What brings you to work?” Sylvia asked, while noting we spend a shocking 74 per cent of our time at work. “We want to make a difference. In health care engagement is not about money but making a difference.”

And how can an engaged employee make a difference?

By knowing what is expected of them at work, having the materials and equipment needed to do their job right and to have the opportunity to do what they do best every day, Sylvia said.

Feeling cared about at work can make a big difference toward creating an environment where an employee can thrive. Receiving recognition or praise for doing good work, having their opinions count…this is what people refer to when they say people don’t leave jobs, they leave supervisors.

“If you receive regular recognition for doing good work, if you feel cared about at work, you get to collaborate, contribute and feel connected,” said Sylvia. “In an engaged workforce, we overconvey rather than underconvey.”

It’s so much better to work with committed people, she observed, noting that if an individual has a best friend at work it can have a huge impact on employee engagement.

“Always do what you say you’re going to do. If you can’t do it, explain it,” she said.


Because this helps build confidence in relationships, and ultimately the organization.

“Even if you can’t share all the details, is there something you can share? Even explaining that you can’t explain why can help build the one great equalizer: communication in the absence of clarity.”

Humour, fun, creativity are essential to being engaged in the workplace, she noted. And posed a question for leaders to consider: What are you willing to do to promote engagement?

 “Spending more time with my employees is a good start. It shows that I’m engaged and I care,” she said.

But considering people’s strengths, and dividing the workload in ways that can give people the opportunity to shine are other ways to promote engagement. Because when offered the chance to shine, people become more engaged because they realize they really want to be there, she said. “Look at people’s areas of skill, what they’re really good at.”

She told the story of a CEO of a large healthcare related organization. The CEO was very disgruntled and felt they didn’t have time for anything – not even lunch – and that whatever they did was meaningless.

Sylvia asked the CEO what they love most about their job. The answer was checking in with staff, being with them.

She reminded them that connecting with people was being a leader, not a manager. And acknowledged the easy fix: the CEO needed to go connect with their people and see that as part of their job duties.

The result? She had more fun.

“What can you do to bring your best self to work? Fun, laughter, creativity will make up for all the other stuff we can’t provide,” she said. “Imagine a workplace where people feel like they’re having fun. It’s clear they’re working together, and have a different ability to think outside the box...wonderful things can happen when you allow people to have fun.”

Fun opens the door to making a collaborative workplace a reality. “It’s hard to accept collaboration when you have a very specific idea in mind. There is huge value in opening up your mind and heart to other people’s input,” she said. “Don’t dismiss what people say.”

But more than that, Sylvia said that a little bit of effort into consciously creating an atmosphere people want to work in can change the whole dynamic of your worklife.

“And guess what happens to patient care!” she pointed out.

Health care is serious business, she said, where people are held to standards that very few people are held to. “People expect better than the best,” she said.

But she noted a group working in palliative care she called the St. B Angels. “Sometimes their halos are around their ankles,” she said. “They have seriously dark humour. But they are committed to their work and feel like they belong.”

Leaders can help set the tone by being role models, she said. When leaders are calm and centered, the energy creates calmer, more centred teams.

“People look to you to see what’s happening. If my manager doesn’t care, I don’t care. It starts with us,” she said.

She urged everyone to take care of themselves. “That’s the worst thing about healthcare – we don’t take care of ourselves,” she said, noting research shows nurses have the lowest adherence to annual health screening. “But if we don’t take care of ourselves, it’s hard to take care of our clients or our team.”