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Scientific Considerations of Employee Engagement during COVID-19

By Nolan Miller, M.S.I.O.P., Research Analyst, Workforce Engagement, NRC Health


Twenty years ago, almost nobody was talking about employee engagement. While some organizations were beginning to recognize the benefits of improving their employees’ satisfaction, motivation, and mental health, employee engagement as we understand it today had not even been conceptualized. It wasn’t until 1990 that a scholarly paper was written on the topic, and then it took another 20 years before that article began circulating in scientific and organizational communities. We now understand that employee engagement is the simultaneous employment of a person’s “preferred self” through physical, cognitive, and emotional means. When an employee commits their preferred self to their role, not only does the organization benefit from their high-quality work, but the employee’s well-being is fostered through emotional and cognitive health.

While this understanding of engagement is relatively new, engagement’s popularity is nonetheless well-precedented. Studies showing the relationship between employee engagement and performance, profitability, and productivity across countless industries have helped shift the conversation from academia to senior leadership. In a 2019 study with over 1,000 healthcare organizations, employee engagement was rated as the industry’s fastest-growing priority.

When it finally seemed like we were effectively grasping, measuring, and improving employee engagement, an unprecedented state of affairs from COVID-19 challenged the engagement of our nation’s healthcare workers. Frontline staff face the challenges of treating and caring for COVID-19 patients while maintaining their own physical, mental, and emotional health. How do our conversations around employee engagement change when facing the challenges of COVID-19?

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