Good Workday or Bad Workday?

How Fluctuations in State Work Engagement Effect Your Workday

We have all been there. There are days at work where one is counting down the seconds to the end of the day, and where, despite having a full workload, you cannot bring yourself to focus and get things done. Or, there are days at work where when you look again, you cannot believe that an entire day has gone by, and you have flown through everything you really wanted to get done – without it feeling like a chore.

The good or bad workday can, according to research, be partly explained by an individual’s state of work engagement.

The concept of work engagement is a rather broad, and generally complex one. This is primarily as work engagement consists of various aspects, including a person’s emotional state, thoughts and behaviours. Work engagement can also be considered from the view of a trait (relatively stable, positive outlook on life and work) or as a state (such as being energised and absorbed in your work).

Where trait work engagement would be more stable, state work engagement is more transient and tends to fluctuate in people over shorter time periods. This is very similar to how people’s experience of a workday being good or bad is also transient, and often fluctuates. The study of these fluctuations is often referred to as the within-person perspective which focuses on understanding the patterns of work-related experiences and behaviours people tend toward.

At the core of it, state work engagement is characterised by:

  • Vigour – high work energy, resilience and persistence;
  • Dedication – strong work involvement, work is experienced as significant & challenging, a person feels proud, inspired and enthusiastic toward their work;
  • Absorption – being happily engrossed in work, completely concentrated in it, and where time passes by effortlessly.

On good work days, an individual normally experiences higher levels of vigour, dedication and absorption in their work, which is why time flies by, they feel energised in what they are doing, and have the energy to keep going throughout the day. Interesting here is that research has found that at least one third of the total variance (or change) in experienced work engagement, over the period of a day, or week, is down to within-person variance, that this variance is not random, and is at least partially explained by certain aspects or predictors within the person themselves.

The question then begs, when do people feel engaged at work, are there specific factors that cause people to feel more engaged and are there specific aspects in an individual which contribute to the experience of work engagement? Research has highlighted the following aspects as contributing to, or detracting from an individual’s experience of state work engagement:

  • Day-Level-Recovery: This refers to the degree to which an individual feels they have destressed from the previous day’s job stress and returns to work the next day feeling refreshed. Day-level-recovery is also seen as the most important, or foundational aspect for the remaining aspects described below. Research indicates that day-level, experienced state work engagement was significantly higher on days where employees reported feeling recovered in the morning, compared to days where they reported not yet feeling fully recovered. Interestingly, research also indicates that employees with high job demands, reported higher levels of state work engagement when they felt recovered from the previous day. What this means is, that when people are well rested and recharged, they will see high job demands as a challenge, rather than an obstacle, and be far more engaged in their work as a result.
  • Self-Efficacy: Research indicates that when people feel self-efficacy (the personal capacity to meaningfully take on challenges), they experience higher levels of state work engagement during that workday. On face value, this makes sense, if a person feels like they know what they are doing, they are more likely to fully immerse themselves in that activity. But the self-efficacy seems to be a catalyst from which an employee goes on to further experience organisation-based self-esteem (OBSE), with this feeling of being esteemed further fuelling the experience of self-efficacy, thereby leading to the experience of vigour, dedication and absorption. Self-efficacy is however experienced far less when employees report poor day-level-recovery.
  • Job Resources: Research provides evidence that when people feel they have autonomy in their work, work in a positive, uplifting climate and have some form of coaching or development available to them, they experience higher levels of state work engagement. What was by far the strongest predictor here of state work engagement was autonomy though. Again, on face value this makes sense, if you pair self-efficacy with the trust to exercise skill (autonomy), nourish that skill with a positive environment (climate) and provide opportunity to hone and perfect that skill (coaching and/or development), it would stand to reason that people would experience higher vigour, dedication and absorption in their work.

In practice, engaged employees will work harder (vigour), are more involved in their work (dedication), Leading research figures in the field of job engagement, job demands and job resources, Sonnentag, Dormann and Demerouti (2010:43) developed a model to explain the cumulative impact of the aspects which lead up to the experience of state work engagement. This model is depicted below:

Figure 1: Model of State Work Engagement (Sonnentag, Dormann & Demerouti, 2010)

The findings of the model above can help explain why employees sometimes experience higher or lower levels of state work engagement when working with different teams and/or leaders. Some teams and/or leaders may provide better resources, such as trust by way of autonomy, and value downtime (for instance, no emails or calls after hours). This creates the optimal conditions for the employee to experience higher self-efficacy, esteem, optimism and so on, which leads to higher levels of work engagement and the positive performance outcomes as seen in the model above. So, with all this said and done, they key take-homes here are:

  1. Get proper rest – when people are not rested and recharged from the previous day or week’s challenges, they experience lower state work engagement. Simple things like no emails and calls after hours (with emails, none after hours, even if the sender does not expect a response until business hours), respecting downtime, and ensuring people take leave when they need it are critical behaviours which lead to major return on investment. 
  2. Trust is key – when people feel trusted to do their job, and are given the space to do it, the conditions for the experience of state work engagement are further created. This does not mean that leaders do not need to provide clear guidelines, and provide support to employees, rather, it simply means that micromanaging is best avoided here.
  3. Positive Feedback – supervisors can improve employee self-esteem by focusing on the provision of positive feedback (and avoiding negative feedback) if they want employees to be highly work motivated in a specific situation. In addition, supervisors can increase state work engagement in subordinates by coaching them, and emphasising strengths in such interactions.
  4. Avoid ‘Energy Zappers’ – to keep focus and engagement, avoid people that tend to sap energy during interactions, avoid social media engagement, and keep email interaction to a defined and controlled period.
  5. Provide opportunities to blow off steam – as an initial measure to improve team climate, it is beneficial to provide opportunities for the team members to interact on a more social and informal level, preferably outside of the workplace.
References & Further Reading

Buelens, M., & Poelmans, S. A. Y. (2004). Enriching the Spence and Robbins typology of workaholism:

Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22, 309–328.

Bakker, A. B., Hakanen, J. J., Demerouti, E., & Xanthopoulou, D. (2007). Job resources boost work engagement, particularly when job demands are high. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99, 274–284.

Bakker, A. B., van Emmerik, I. H., Geurts, S. A. E., & Demerouti, E. (2008). Recovery turns job demands into challenges: A diary study on work engagement and performance. Working paper. Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Hakanen, J. J., Perhoniemi, R., & Toppinen-Tammer, S. (2008). Positive gain spirals at work: From job resources to work engagement, personal initiative and work-unit innovativeness. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 73, 78–91.

Ilies, R., Schwind, K. M., & Heller, D. (2007). Employee well-being: A multilevel model linking work and nonwork domains. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 16, 326–341.

Luthans, F., Avolio, B. J., Avey, J. B., & Norman, S. M. (2007). Positive psychological capital: Measurement and relationship with performance and satisfaction.  Personnel Psychology, 60, 541–572.

Sonnentag, S. (2003). Recovery, work engagement, and proactive behavior: A new look at the interface between non-work and work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 518–528. Sonnentag, S., Dormann, C., & Demerouti, E. (2010). Not all days are created equal: The concept of state work engagement. In A.B Bakker & M.P Leiter (Eds.), Work engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research (pp. 25-38). New York, NY: Psychology Press.