Employee experience, engagement, and wellbeing: definitions
It’s common knowledge that employee experience (EX), employee engagement (EE), and employee wellbeing (EW) are central to culture-first HR strategies. These terms are top-of-mind for people leaders and make for trending hashtags. Yet the more they’re talked about, the more interchangeably they seem to be used.
EX, employee engagement, and well-being aren’t the same thing. Of course, there are conversational contexts in which they can be utilized liberally, but at their core, they interact and influence each other differently. A deep understanding of these concepts is necessary to develop a successful People and Culture strategy. Keeping them distinct will allow you to avoid gaps in your strategy, and get practical value out of their definitions.
In this article, we’ll start with a precise definition of each notion, then dive into how they coexist and influence each other at individual and collective levels, and lay out some practical examples of interactions.
What is employee experience?
The employee eperience encapsulates what people encounter and observe over the course of their tenure at an organization.
Although employee experience directly influences what employees feel, it’s not the employees’ feelings – it’s what happens to them. Let’s say your employees report feeling more included since your organization started doing a rotation for leading the All-Hands meetings so that every employee can run it at some point. In this case, employee experience isn't "feeling included” but a democratic and equitable process for leading All-Hands.
The objective facts of an employee’s experience include promotions, whether their manager asks about their weekend on Monday morning, whether their opinion is heard and taken into consideration during meetings, and more. The employee experience is something over which organizations have a lot of control, and it's something that leaders are responsible and accountable for – especially during hard times.
What is employee engagement?
Employee engagement is the measure of the relationship between employees and an organization. It’s one of the constellations of feelings that can result from the employee experience. Most companies measure and aim to improve employee engagement since it’s highly correlated with turnover and how much effort their people are likely to put into their work. For example, employee engagement highlights the probability of people saying positive things about your organization, putting in their best effort, and choosing to remain with you for a long time. Since employee engagement directly informs whether people are willing to invest (their time, energy, and intellect) in the organization, it is what most employers want to understand and predict.
Put another way, your employee engagement levels indicate whether your people care about your organization and how satisfied they are with what they’re doing from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.
Of course, your organization can influence employee engagement through their experience, but outside factors can also influence engagement. For example, one may love their job and be extremely engaged until they find out they are paid less than others in the same role with less experience and suddenly feel disengaged.
What is employee wellbeing?
Employee wellbeing measures your employees’ health, including their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual states.
It signifies the sustainability of your employee engagement and indicates whether your employees will be able to maintain their engagement over an extended period.
A group of employees is likely to have high wellbeing if the EX is helping them to rejuvenate energy faster than they’re spending it. Most typically, this would be the case in environments where employees...
- feel like they can be successful
- have the necessary resources to do a realistic amount of work
- are in a role they understand and are aware of the role’s contribution to the larger company objectives
- receive appropriate praise for their efforts
Just like with employee engagement, your employees’ wellbeing is influenced by your organization, and developing an employee wellbeing guide certainly is essential. Yet, it’s also affected by outside factors, such as family or financial stressors.
However, unlike engagement, various aspects of wellbeing are not an organization’s responsibility. For example, health is a result of many interacting components. While organizations can and should address the parts that fall under EX (such as workload), it remains the province of specialists and therapists for a reason.
How do employee experience, engagement, and wellbeing interact?
Understanding how these factors inform the other is difficult because of compounding effects and feedback loops from the individual to the collective level.
So to make it clear, let’s imagine a company of only one employee, and call it Company A. We’ll also introduce another company, Company B, which has hundreds of employees, follows traditional organizational structures, and where individual contributors are part of teams that report to managers.
At Company A, employee experience directly influences engagement. If the EX scores are high, engagement scores are likely to be high as well. EX also directly influences wellbeing. If the employee experience scores are low, wellbeing scores are likely to be as well.
Additionally, employee wellbeing directly impacts engagement, in that if wellbeing scores are high, engagement is likely to be high as well, and be so over a sustainable period of time.
Now looking at Company B (which is most companies), all of the above remains true, but since one person’s experience affects other people, we see feedback effects at all levels of interaction. Say that a manager has poor wellbeing, EX, or engagement scores. This could have a direct effect on that manager’s direct reports’ (or peers’) EX, wellbeing, or engagement. And since the number of people in a group to the number of relationships within this group is exponential, you could imagine how confusing isolating and addressing the root of a problem might be.
This is why to ensure a successful People and Culture strategy, an organization should care for EX, employee wellbeing, and engagement independently, by collecting separate data on these three components.
Some more examples
To better understand how employee experience, wellbeing, and engagement interact with each other, here are three fictitious examples:
Example 1: Low EX + Low wellbeing + High engagement = Burnout
As mentioned before, wellbeing informs how sustainable employee engagement will be. Imagine a non-profit organization that is incredibly mission-driven but doesn’t have the resources to invest in great employee experience. Engagement scores might be high, as employees feel extremely aligned with and proud of the work they’re doing in the world. However, with little effort put toward the EX, and long hours driven by high engagement, employees at this company are likely to experience low wellbeing.
Example 2: High EX + High wellbeing + Low engagement = Stagnation or decadence
Imagine a large, “cash-first” company that is not mission-driven and that employees aren’t necessarily proud to work at. However, a lot of resources are allocated to EX: perks abound, kombucha on tap, flexible hours, and ping pong tables convince candidates to join the company. However, the work is quite repetitive, and there aren’t a lot of development opportunities. Chances are the surveys would show good EX, high wellbeing, but low engagement.
Example 3: High EX + Low wellbeing High engagement: = Demanding jobs in need of innovation
Now imagine a third company where a group of employees experiences huge amounts of stress due to something outside of the company’s control, such as the very nature of their work (first responders, prison personnel, accountants during tax season, etc.) or a global pandemic. The organization ensures that resources are allocated to fostering a positive work experience and that employees feel proud of their contribution to society. This is a scenario in which we might see high employee experience and engagement scores but low wellbeing scores.
In this scenario, it might be worth noting that the employee experience is probably keeping employee wellbeing from plummeting completely. Realizing this, HR leaders could either:
- Rejoice that, unlike their competitors, the wellbeing scores aren’t negative numbers, or
- Realize that they could do something to heighten their employee wellbeing potential. (For example, they could refine accountants’ job schedules to accommodate family dinner time during tax season, and let them come back online remotely after 8 pm to finish their work)
Connecting the dots
Getting to the root cause of your employee’s wellbeing, engagement, or experience results can be confusing. However, by developing a clear understanding of these three components and how they affect each other, as well as regularly surveying your employees, you will be able to start making sense of and improving upon your employees’ experience of work.