Engagement: masturbating employee satisfaction

by Isabel Wu

Just over 100 years ago while much of the Western world was enjoying unprecedented growth brought about by the industrial revolution, the medical profession was treating women afflicted by a particular malady, female hysteria, that was thought to be caused by abnormal movements of the uterus.   By late 1800s it had become something of a crisis with an estimated 25 per cent of all women affected by hysteria.  It was easily recognised by many its symptoms including faintness, nervousness, erratic behaviour, anxiety, bloating, paralytic states, loss of appetite, irritability and a tendency to cause trouble (one physician who attempted to catalogue all the symptoms had to concede defeat after seventy five pages).  While it was not a new disease having first been described 2000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians, and also contemplated by such wise heads as the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, Socrates (who should know as his mother was a midwife) and his student, Plato, in the late 19th century relief was available through physician-assisted ‘hysterical paroxysms’, the manual stimulation of the patient’s genital area.  At a time when medicine was based on mysteries rather than science and consisted of primitive treatments such as bleeding, doctors were as likely to kill their patients as cure them.  Treatment for hysteria, by contrast, not only did not kill but the doctors were enjoying unprecedented success.  The invention of the vibrator facilitated a surge in their productivity – not to mention popularity (with the added benefit of the end of doctors’ work injury claims for hand cramps).   Some history writers even credit the boom in demand for hysterical paroxysms with helping to lift the status of the physicians from quacks to medical professional.  Hundreds of satisfied, repeat customers will do that.

Female hysteria as a diagnosed medical illness declined in the first decade of the 20th century, coinciding with the birth of the feminist movement and the growing understanding of psychology.  Rather than believing women were more susceptible to illness because they were the weaker sex, it was gradually recognised that depression, anxiety and stress were the product of the lack of power, independence, control and freedom forced upon them in a patriarchal society that expected women to be subservient, docile and of high moral character.  Families could avoid scandal by quietly confining ladies affected by’ hysteria’ to a sanitarium or an asylum.

Fortunately for workers suffering from depression, anxiety and stress, the history of female hysteria provides a precedent.  As it was for their 19th century medical counterparts there is a solution for employers struggling with unmotivated, intractable, under-performing and otherwise disengaged workers.  However, it seems that most HR professionals are yet to administer the ‘engagement program’ treatment that requires only some dextrous application to change people from melancholy to happy and satisfied.

In a recent report on the results of an online survey by cloud-based social talent management solutions provider SilkRoad, 781 HR professionals revealed their companies’ employee engagement practices. The survey tested for:
• the number of companies with explicit employee engagement programs
• the organisational impact of low engagement
• the ways professionals involve the C-suite in engagement
• HR professionals’ employee engagement ‘pain points’ and concerns
• which generations in the workplace are perceived as being more engaged
• the methods companies use to measure employee engagement.

“One of the most significant findings we uncovered is that a majority (54 per cent) of employers still don’t offer formal engagement programs,” said the director of product management at SilkRoad.  “While 73 per cent report participating in engagement programs on some level, only 38 per cent are offering formal programs.  This is problematic for a number of reasons, but top among them is the fact that informal programs lack clear goals and accountability.”

As any director of a company that sells HR software would tell us, we have a modern-day employee engagement equivalent of the vibrator.  Software designed to solve the engagement malady with financial, value-affirming, communicational or professional developmental paroxysms is available.

A pity that history has yet to catch up with the workplace which is still legally based on the feudal master/servant relationship.

Peter Hall-Jones in his 2008 article, Of Masters and Servants, posits:

“In this relationship, the servant works at the direction of the master and engages in work for the benefit of the master. In return, the master compensates the servant for his or her labour.”

“It appears that servants are not so thrilled about the conditions of their servitude.  And they are even less impressed with the behaviour of their masters.  Could it be that the two are linked?  Could it be that the master-servant relationship itself is creating all this alienation?”

“Make no mistake—this is not an airy-fairy ivory-tower kind of an issue.  Problems arising from workplace culture (depression, stress and anxiety) are now the primary cause of workplace absence in most developed countries.  Some 420,000 cases are reported in the UK each year.  Estimates put the cost to business in the US alone at about $44 billion per year.  And we do know that job satisfaction, engagement and productivity are somehow linked.”

While on one hand HR looks for the cures for employee disengagement, it continues to reinforce systems and structures that create the problems.  Employee disengagement is not an ailment to be ‘treated’ with a ‘program’ but has the same root causes (no pun intended) as female hysteria: having to live in a controlling environment in which she was totally dependent on the master and where she was expected to perform her duties, fitting into her rigidly-cast role.

Hopefully when the workplaces in which most people have to work are reformed so that workers can focus on how best to do the work, not on what will keep them the job, the good engagement programs can also go the way of the vibrator – no longer a treatment tool but used because it gives a little extra to something we like.