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Employee Engagement Starts with Mental Health

Employee Engagement Starts with Mental Health

How many of your employees are just going through the motions at work? And what impact do disengaged employees have on your business? Employee engagement has a ripple effect in organizations, with the potential to dramatically improve retention and productivity, as well as customer satisfaction and company profitability. 

According to Gallup, only 20 percent of global employees and 34 percent of American workers are engaged at work. Recognizing the competitive advantage it presents, improving employee engagement is a business priority for many executives and HR leaders. 

One key to reaping the benefits of employee engagement is to understand its prerequisites, including the role of mental health. Employees who are dealing with unaddressed mental health challenges may be unable to fully engage, especially if they feel like a company is indifferent to those challenges. That means a solid starting point for increasing work engagement is taking a closer look at what employees need in terms of mental health support.

What is employee engagement?

The Society for Human Resource Management defines employee engagement as “the level of an employee’s commitment and connection to an organization.” Engagement is a mental and emotional bond that employees feel toward their work and their employers. They’re enthusiastic about what they’re doing and eager to contribute to their company’s success. Engaged employees are: 

  • Focused
  • Proactive 
  • Purpose-driven
  • Team-oriented
  • Driven to grow, learn, and improve
  • Solution-oriented
  • Adaptable
  • Willing to go above and beyond

Disengaged employees, by contrast, tend to feel disconnected from their work, complain about their jobs, put in minimal effort, and are disinterested in building social ties. 

What employee engagement is not

What’s the difference between employee engagement and employee satisfaction?

Employee satisfaction is an indicator of how happy employees are at work, often due to organizational factors like pay, benefits, and job security. It doesn’t capture their motivation or emotional commitment. For example, some employees may be satisfied with a job because it meets their pay requirements, but feel little emotional connection, passion, or drive to advance company goals. Employee engagement can be an indicator of satisfaction, but they aren’t the same thing

What’s the difference between employee engagement and employee experience?

Employee experience reflects the employee’s journey with a company, from hiring to departure. Employee engagement involves the psychological needs that fuel job performance, such as clear expectations, adequate resources, and a sense of purpose. Employee engagement is one part of employee experience.

Three types of employee engagement

Work engagement isn’t all or nothing—most employees fall on a spectrum. Gallup defines three types of employee engagement:

1. Engaged – Employees who are enthusiastic about their work and emotionally invested in helping the company meet its goals, with a zest for owning difficult projects and contributing new ideas

Example: Layla has a great attitude about work. Last week, she volunteered to take on a high-profile project that would stretch her skills.

2. Not engaged – Employees who do their job, but lack passion, energy, or emotional attachment to their work

Example: Mohammed is content to fly under the radar at work. He meets his goals but is reluctant to take on “stretch” projects.

3. Actively disengaged – Employees who feel unhappy or resentful about work, which leads them to undermine their co-workers

Example: Nora spends most of her day complaining about work, blaming others, and looking for other jobs. Her negative attitude infects everyone around her.

Why is employee engagement important?

Disengaged employees cost American companies as much as $550 billion a year. Across industries and company sizes, keeping employees engaged is an investment that pays off in better business outcomes. Here are a few proven benefits of employee engagement:

#1 Employee well-being

The relationship between workplace employee engagement and well-being goes two ways. Engaged workplaces encourage employees to focus on their health. As a result, Gallup research shows engaged employees eat well, exercise more, and are less likely to be obese or have chronic health conditions than disengaged employees. 

Employees who feel well, physically and emotionally, are better able to engage at work. Since health is a priority, engaged employees are more likely than disengaged employees to participate in wellness programs offered by their employers. Engaged employees also tend to have happier home lives, which contributes to their overall well-being.

#2 Retention

Why do people quit their jobs? One poll found the top reasons include the employee’s relationship with their boss, unchallenging work, and poor fit with their co-workers or company culture—all factors tied to work engagement. Companies that score in the top 20 percent in engagement have 59 percent less turnover, and consequently lower turnover and hiring costs. 

#3 Productivity

In one study, high work engagement drove a 20 percent increase in employee productivity. When employees are engaged at work, businesses have realized a 41 percent decrease in absenteeism, which is defined as frequent or unearned time away from work.

#4 Higher quality work

Engaged employees are more invested in their work and more connected to their environment, which can lead to safer, higher quality work. For example, highly engaged companies see 40 percent fewer quality defects and 48 percent fewer safety incidents.

#5 Customer satisfaction

Happier employees care deeply about their jobs and clients, enabling them to provide better customer service. On average, a 1-point increase in company rating correlates to a 1.3-point increase in customer satisfaction.

#6 Company profitability

Highly engaged teams generate 20 percent higher sales and 21 percent greater profitability than disengaged teams. Research has found that organizations with higher employee engagement yield four times the return on investment and generate 2.5 times higher stock price growth than less engaged companies. 

Drivers of employee engagement

Many company leaders believe employees are focused primarily on pay and benefits. But trust, communication, and other organizational factors are also important in getting employees engaged at work. The drivers of employee engagement fall into two categories: factors within the organization’s control and behaviors of employees’ direct supervisors.


Organizational Drivers Management Drivers
Commitment of leadership to create a great place to work
Clear expectations
Trust in leadership
Adequate resources/equipment
Belief in the company’s future success
Opportunities to use unique skills, learn, and grow
Fitting in with the organization’s plans
Feedback and recognition for good work
Valuing people as the company’s most important resource
Meaningful work, with freedom to make decisions
Investing in employees to foster their success
Feeling valued, respected, heard, and cared about as a person
Trusting, supportive work relationships

How to improve employee engagement

Organizations adopt different kinds of employee engagement strategies, from team-building activities and trendy office perks to manager training and better benefits. While feel-good activities have value in their own right, work engagement must be a central priority in your business strategy, backed by concrete actions. Employees need clear expectations, supportive work relationships, and tools to do their jobs.

There are many ways to engage employees, and every company must experiment to find the approaches that work best for their workforce. Here are a few employee engagement best practices to consider:

#1 Recognize the role of mental health

Stress, burnout, and untreated mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety can be a barrier to employee engagement—and vice versa. You could have robust opportunities and training, but if employees are struggling with mental health issues and feel they have no support, those engagement efforts may fall short. According to the World Health Organization, “Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and benefit from associated economic gains.” 

In a report by Mind Share Partners, 60 percent of respondents reported symptoms of a mental health condition in the past year, and 20 percent had willingly left a job within the past year due to mental health reasons. Despite the growing need for mental health care, people still face barriers like stigma, high costs, and lack of access.

Mental health benefits can propel an organization forward by helping employees feel their best, allowing them to be fully present and engaged at work. In one study, 60 percent of employees said they’d feel more motivated and more likely to recommend their company if their employer took steps to support mental well-being. 

Once you have a robust mental health benefit in place, regularly communicate how to access those benefits and take proactive steps to combat stigma so your employees can feel comfortable talking about mental health and asking for help.

#2 Start with assessment

In order to understand what’s needed, it’s necessary to grasp what’s already happening. That could take the form of employee engagement surveys or reviews that measure engagement in a standardized way.

How to measure employee engagement

Measuring employee engagement helps companies monitor progress, build trust, and identify strengths and challenges. Taking action based on your employees’ feedback shows you’re listening and committed to continually improving employee engagement and company culture. 

Employee engagement surveys are a common and useful tool for measuring employee engagement through soliciting employees’ opinions. Companies can also evaluate direct indicators of engagement.

In addition to employee engagement surveys, companies can glean valuable insights through one-on-one meetings between employees and managers, satisfaction surveys, talent review metrics, employee lifecycle surveys, goal tracking, and pulse surveys.

#3 Focus on work design interventions 

Addressing what was uncovered in the assessment usually involves adjusting work design. This may include employee engagement strategies such as:

Skill utilization – Identify employees’ strengths and ensure their work tasks allow them to use their skills and talents. In a Gallup survey, only four in 10 employees said they had the opportunity to do what they do best.

Resources – Provide employees with the materials and equipment they need to do their jobs. Only three in 10 employees in the Gallup survey said their employers provided the necessary tools.

Recognition – Most employees feel energized by doing valuable work and being recognized for it, yet only three in 10 employees in the Gallup survey reported being recognized in the past week. Recognize your employees’ efforts through regular feedback and praise that ties back to the company’s mission, which imbues a sense of meaning and purpose. Employee engagement recognition ideas include:

  • Saying “thank you” often, focusing on details that show you see the employee for their unique abilities, talents, and personality—not just their performance
  • Giving kudos on team or company calls or other communication channels, if the employee prefers public recognition
  • Expressing gratitude in 1:1 meetings, if the employee prefers private recognition
  • Offering monthly or quarterly awards
  • Hosting a special lunch or event

Growth opportunities – Involve employees in important decisions and organize education or training opportunities to help them develop skills that will advance their careers. This shows  employees they are valued and that you’re willing to invest in them.

Social connection – Employers can help employees build strong work relationships through collaboration tools, employee resource groups, team-building activities, facilitated group discussions, and other social outlets.

Inclusivity – Learn how to create psychological safety so employees feel comfortable sharing opinions and ideas. Employees who feel heard are more effective and engaged at work. 

#4 Support remote workers

Remote work options can increase employee engagement, attraction and retention, productivity, and satisfaction. But there are also unique challenges with remote employee engagement. Here are a few virtual employee engagement ideas:

  • Counteract isolation by scheduling social events such as video chats and virtual activities
  • Set healthy boundaries around work schedules and assignments
  • Ask for and provide feedback
  • Provide regular updates on company goals and news
  • Provide a stipend or equipment to help people work effectively at home
  • Show you care about your employees as people by spending a few minutes on weekly calls talking about their interests, mental health, and workload

#5 Invest in managers

Whose job is it to improve employee engagement? Many organizations look to human resources, but it’s a massive undertaking—and one that should be a priority at every level of the organization. Managers play a key role, too. After all, people leave managers, not companies. When organizations invest in training managers, they give them the tools they need to do the day-to-day work of keeping employees engaged.

Unleash the full potential of your workforce

Employee engagement is a key driver of business success. Most people want to work hard and do quality work, given the right environment and support. By starting with the essentials, such as programs to support employee mental health and well-being, you’ll have a strong foundation for increasing employee engagement and helping your organization thrive. 

About the reviewer
Keren Wasserman

Keren is the organizational development program manager on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Keren has a master's degree in social work from the University of Chicago and has worked as a management consultant focused on large-scale change management implementations. She lives in Seattle where she spends her free time hiking, soaking up the PNW's most glorious mountain views.

About the author
Meghan Vivo

Meghan Vivo is a content marketing strategy manager at Lyra Health, where she helps transform mental health care through education, outreach, and storytelling. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Irvine, with a minor is psychology and a juris doctor degree from Syracuse University. Meghan has worked in health care marketing for 15 years, specializing in behavioral health.

Clinically reviewed by
Keren Wasserman
Organizational Development Program Manager
29 of March 2022 - 10 min read
Mental health at work
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