Posted by on April 9, 2016

Definitions of Work Engagement by Academics

Are you looking for a definition of work engagement? There are many definitions by academics.

academic- definition of work engagement

Kahn’s seminal definition of work engagement

William A. Kahn (Academy of Management Journal, 1990) is cited most frequently when discussing engagement in the workplace. Kahn used the term “personal engagement” in his research.

According to Kahn,

Personal engagement is the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s ‘preferred self’ in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional), and active, full role performances.

Kahn describes engagement as the ideal situation where employees do not sacrifice either themselves or their roles at work. They are “physically involved in tasks, whether alone or with others, cognitively vigilant, and empathetically connected to others in the service of the work.”

An individual can be high in one dimension but not all three dimensions (physical, cognitive and emotional). The more involved one is in each dimension, the higher is one’s engagement.

Maslach’s definition of work engagement: the positive antithesis of burnout

Another definition of engagement grew out of positive psychology and the focus on the positive aspects of work in contrast with the negative aspects of work–described as burnout. Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson (Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 1981) researched burnout and developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). Burnout was described as a psychological syndrome resulting from chronic interpersonal stressors at work. Maslach’s definition of burnout consisted of the following dimensions: emotional exhaustion (the individual’s feelings of being overextended and depleted of emotional and physical resources), depersonalization (interpersonal dimension of a negative, callous, or excessively detached response to aspects of the job), and the lack of personal accomplishment (self-evaluation with feelings of incompetence and a lack of achievement and productivity in work).

Building on that work, Maslach and colleagues described engagement on an engagement-burnout continuum:  with burnout at one end and engagement at the opposite end. Engagement was described as energy (high levels of mental and physical resources in the work task), involvement (positive, attentive, and attached response), and efficacy (feelings of competence and an ability to produce quality work), in contrast with burnout which was described as exhaustion, cynicism (depersonalization), and inefficacy.

Schaufeli’s definition of work engagement

Building from the work of Maslach, Wilmar Schaufeli and colleagues (Educational and Psychological Measurement, 2006) defined engagement as “a positive work-related state of fulfillment that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” They developed the Work and Well-Being Survey called the Ultrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES). They defined the dimensions of engagement:

Vigor is characterized by high levels of energy and mental resilience while working, the willingness to invest effort in one’s work, and persistence even in the face of difficulties.

Dedication refers to being strongly involved in one’s work and experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and challenge.

Absorption is characterized by being fully concentrated and happily engrossed in one’s work, whereby time passes quickly and one has difficulties with detaching oneself from work.

Although vigor and dedication are opposites of two of the burnout dimensions used by Maslach, absorption is a distinct dimension. The absorption dimension is similar to the concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi described flow this way:

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.

The Ultrecht Work Engagement Scale has been used by many researchers in studying engagement.

Saks’ definition of job engagement and organization engagement

Alan N. Saks (Journal of Managerial Psychology, 2006) defined engagement as a distinct and unique construct that consisted of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components associated with one’s role performance. But his view of engagement, based on his research, identified two types: job engagement and organization engagement. Job engagement refers to the individual being psychologically present in one’s role at work. Organization engagement refers to the individual being psychological present in one’s role as a member of the organization. His research suggests a meaningful difference between the two types of engagement.

A Number of Definitions–What Dimensions Do They Share?

Most of the definitions of work engagement highlight the investment of energy in one’s work–physical energy, cognitive energy, and emotional energy. The key is that whatever you call it–energy or vigor or something else–when a person is engaged, that person invests their energy in all its forms–physical, cognitive and emotional.  A partial investment is not being actively engaged. The presence of all forms of energy constitutes total engagement. Those various forms of energy are dedicated to accomplishing the work.

The beauty of engagement is the harmony that exists between one’s self and one’s role. When doing the work nurtures all aspects of the individual, then the ultimate experience of engagement is achieved.


Posted in: Definition