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Employee engagement according to Gennard and Judge (2014), is key to overcoming obstacles that hinder employees from performing at their peak. Contemporary organisations need employees who feel energetic and engaged with their work (Albrecht, Bakker, Gruman, Macy, & Saks, 2015). The construct is relatively new but has gained popularity in the last two decades in the field of human resource management (Wefald & Downey 2009b). Most of the studies related to employee engagement have been conducted by consultancy firms in foreign contexts. It is only recently that the construct has attracted the attention of academic research.
This, therefore, gives room for further research on the construct in the field of academia and human resource management in particular and in the context of Uganda. The growing interest in engagement follows the psychology research community’s increasing interest in positive aspects of functioning.
Although scholars and practitioners in the HRM field tend to agree that the fundamental concept of engagement may help explain behaviour at work, there are conceptual disparities among researchers and practitioners on the definition of employee engagement practitioners (Kular, Gatenby, Rees, Soane &, Truss, 2008; Shuch & Wollard, 2010).
This lack of precision originates from the fact that practical interest in employee engagement has increased faster than the research evidence regarding the construct, its antecedents and outcomes (Macey & Schneider 2008; Wollard & Shuck, 2011; Rothmann, 2014; Bailey et al., 2015). As Saks (2008) has criticized, engagement seems to serve as an umbrella term for whatever one wants it to be.
The concept of engagement was first introduced by Khan (1990) who posited that employees who are engaged immerse themselves cognitively physically and emotionally in work while disengaged employees though physically present are psychologically absent while performing their work.
Further, Khan (1990) posited that three conditions are necessary for engagement to take place; meaningfulness, safety and availability. According to this line of reasoning, it is only if the three conditions are met that employee engagement can take place. These psychological conditions serve as the mechanism by which individuals connect to their role performance. In contrast, disengagement refers to withdrawal from the work role. However, Kahn’s conceptualisation has a weakness. Kahn’s framework for engagement indicates the psychological conditions that are necessary for engagement and it has therefore been important for the theoretical thinking about engagement (Schaufeli, 2014).
However, it does not fully explain why individuals will respond to these conditions with varying degrees of engagement (Saks, 2006; Bandura, 2001; Hirschfeld & Thomas, 2008) and the approach has only occasionally been used in empirical research (Schaufeli, 2014). Later, the conceptualisation of the construct was taken up by (Maslach and Leiter 1997) who posited that employee engagement is the opposite of burnout. Engaged employees who are seen as energetic and take their work as a challenge appear as the opposite to burnt-out employees who are stressed and see their work as demanding (Bakker, Schaufeli, Leiter & Taris 2008). Maslach and Leiter (1997) added to their argument by asserting that, if an employee is not engaged, he or she will be more likely to move to the other end of the continuum and experience burnout.
The state of engagement is characterised as having high energy, high involvement and efficacy. Gonzalez-Roma, Schaufeli, Bakker and Lloret (2006) supported this view and further characterised it by activation, identification and absorption. Activation refers to having a sense of energy, identification is a positive relationship towards work, and absorption is being fully immersed in one’s job. Nevertheless, the argument that engagement is the opposite of burnout is this school’s main weakness. Engagement is not the opposite of burnout. When an employee is not engaged, it does not signify that he or she will be experiencing burnout. For example, an employee who does not have a good ‘fit’ with his or her job might find their job uninteresting and thus do their work routinely just to complete their tasks. However, he or she may not be suffering from exhaustion or burnout Other scholars such as Britt (1999) have used the concept of ‘self-engagement’, which involves feeling a sense of responsibility for and commitment to a performance domain so that performance ‘matters’ to the individual.
There is an overlapping definition of engagement and commitment to Britt’s notion of self-engagement. Commitment to perform should not be mistakenly equated to engagement as they are distinctly different constructs. Commitment focuses on the long-term effect of behaviour at work while engagement focuses on the short-term effect. Another weakness is that solely referring engagement to feeling ‘responsible’ for work does not explain the whole perception of being engaged at work. A person could feel responsible for work but not enthusiastic or positive about doing the work. Thus, the definition produced by this school of thought does not clarify the concept of engagement and is therefore not appropriate to be adopted by this study.
The engagement has also been defined as an individual’s involvement, satisfaction and enthusiasm for work (Harter et al. 2002). This definition has the weakness of conceptual overlaps. First, job involvement is a concept that focuses on how a job helps define a person’s identity (Lawler & Hall 1970). A person who is involved in their job: (a) finds their job motivating, (b) is committed to their work and organisation and (c) engages in professional relationships with co-workers (Brown 1996). Thus, as Hallberg and Schaufeli (2006) argued, job involvement is a function of the individual and should be seen as an antecedent in a research model, whereas engagement, on the other hand, should be seen as a dependent variable in a research model. Furthermore, this definition overlaps with the term ‘job satisfaction’. Job satisfaction explains how content an individual is with his or her job; it is a pleasurable emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job (Locke 1976).
This school of thought captures only one domain of employee engagement, i.e., being enthusiastic about work hence inadequate in explaining what engagement is. Perceptions of work characteristics, job involvement and satisfaction could be factors that affect employee engagement and not the concept itself. Recently, employee engagement was recategorised as vigour (Wefald & Downey 2009a). ‘Vigour’ as defined by Shirom (2003) refers to an individual’s feeling that they possess physical strength, emotional energy and cognitive liveliness. Vigour in this respect focuses on the notion of having ‘energy’ at work. It does not refer to behavioural responses to events at work such as dedication to work, which is a significant characteristic of employee engagement. Thus, adopting the concept of vigour (i.e., energy) does not capture a holistic concept of engagement. For this reason, this school of thought’s definition of engagement cannot be used to conceptualise employee engagement in this study.
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