Public sector engagement: what should employers offer to employees?

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Based on an innovative and forward-thinking whitepaper, this blog series highlights several key parts of how a new empoyment deal for public sector staff could revitalise the sector and tackle disengagement.

Within the employment relationship, employer contributions describe the different ‘offerings’ that employees value and expect to receive from their employer.

These are broadly characterised as:

  • Psychological contract
  • Perceived organisational support (POS)

Psychological contract

Guest and Conway (2002) define the psychological contract as “the perceptions of both parties to the employment relationship – organisation and individual – of the reciprocal promises and obligations implied in that relationship”.

In the mind of the employee this includes:

  • opportunities for training and development
  • being treated fairly
  • being given stimulating work
  • job security
  • adequate support structures.

In return for upholding these promises and obligations the employer expects employees to display:

  • commitment to their job role
  • engagement
  • high levels of productivity and loyalty

[Read the employee contribution piece too as it's linked to this article]

A key insight derived from our research is the critical need to manage and communicate the psychological contract at a time of organisational transformation and instability.

The austerity agenda has forced councils to undertake massive savings. There is less human resourcing and funding available, while the workload, along with the expectation to deliver high-quality service, has not diminished.

Many employees’ job remit has expanded to include new duties and responsibilities; sometimes this is not adequately accompanied by the necessary training or financial rewards.

These new and diverse pressures resulting from budgetary constraints has lead many employees to re-assess the terms of the psychological contract, as can be seen in the free text comments below.

Are employees re-assessing the terms of the psychological contract in local councils?

“There is a huge amount of pressure at the moment with employees being expected to do far more than ever before for no extra reward.”

“I do worry that although I am willing to work harder and take on additional responsibility, the council may not be in a position to reward this, and due to rising costs of living and the need to develop my career I may end up looking elsewhere for employment in the next few years, despite my enjoyment of my current role.”

In the first comment there is a palpable sense of frustration at the perceived imbalance between the enhanced expectation from the employer’s side and the deficiency of reward and recognition in return for employee efforts.

The second comment is far more optimistic about the new changes and job role, with the employee stating they are motivated to “take on additional responsibility”.

However, this is offset by their uncertainty as to whether the council can maintain obligations and promises in the form of training and development and appropriate remuneration for their extra efforts. This has caused dissatisfaction and insecurity to develop, which has prompted them to consider leaving this particular organisation, despite finding pleasure in their job role.

Some employees described how the loss of job control as a result of restructures is increasing tension in the workplace.

“The other thing that causes tension is the ethos that we are all interchangeable. We are not!!! We all have differing strengths and weaknesses but these are NEVER taken into account. Because we are spread so thinly we have now become jack of all trades and master of none.”

This individual’s comment captures the disconnect between senior management and staff.

From this employee’s perspective, there has a been a breach of the psychological contract. There is an expectation from their side that their role will align with their skills and area of expertise.

However, re-structures have forced employers to create more efficient and effective working practices. The re-designing of jobs has re-cast employees’ roles as ‘interchangeable’.

Roles are now malleable, generic and no longer tailored to people’s skillset. As a result, employees feel they have been put in a position where ‘we have now become jack of all trades and master of none’.

An inappropriately handled restructure has left this particular employee to feel as though they are unable to do a good job, leading to an erosion of professional pride and the feeling of continuously underperforming.

The experiences of council employees captured in the comments demonstrate that it is vital to be mindful of the shifting obligations and expectations that embody the psychological contract at any given time. This is particularly important during periods of great upheaval and change.

Perceived Organisational Support

Perceived organisational support [POS] is an expression of the quality of delivery of a range of elements such as feeling supported, recognised, and valued for their contributions.

It also covers the cultivation of an environment in which employees feel empowered to speak up and voice their opinions about their work and wider organisational aims.

The comprehensive narratives collected from local government employees highlight the kinds of organisational supportive practices that have enabled them to sustain high levels of engagement in the midst of numerous restructures and perpetual job insecurity.

The examples of free text comments reveal different levels of support: at the broader organisational level through to the line manager level, illustrating both positive and negative examples.

“…Working for the council is a safe environment and helpful senior staff that help with problems at home with family issues and also with equipment that I need to carry out my job effectively. That kind of support makes me happy to be a part of [] council workforce.”

This an excellent example describing POS working effectively for this individual, in which they describe their council as a ‘safe’ and caring workplace that understands their personal needs, including home-related issues.

These kinds of employer practices boost employee commitment, performance, as well as enhancing organisational citizenship behaviours.

In contrast, other employees spoke about the emotional impact of feeling unsupported and how this shapes their performance. For example:

“..In regards to several projects I have not felt supported and despite assurances of backup or intervention to move projects forward, the agreed approach has not been acted on by management, leaving me to feel let down or undermined.”

Continued poor delivery of support, if not corrected, will lead this respondent to feel increasingly disaffected with their employer and may motivate them ultimately to seek employment in another organisation.

Other narrative accounts draw attention to the way poorly-managed restructures have eroded support systems without them being replaced with adequate alternatives.

The strong sense of insecurity, dismay and heightened pressure resulting from the absence of support structures is conveyed in another quote:

“The fear of being on your own, with no support colleagues in specialist areas to help, advise and guide, it has become a very stressful environment.”

Vital to an effective, supportive climate is the relationship with the line manager.

Mary Edbrooke, former Staff Engagement Manager at Kent County Council, describes POS as:

One of the most important elements of the employment 'deal', it represents how supported people feel by their line manager, management more widely, their colleagues and their employer as a whole. We know from engagement research that most people leave their line manager rather than the organisation.  The line manager is the lens through which people view the organisation, so it's an area that line managers can directly influence”.

A manager symbolises the ‘face of the organisation’ through which the employment relationship with the employee is forged or enabled. This powerful role as mediator between organisation and staff is neatly expressed in the following quote:

"While I am aware of issues within other areas of my unit, I count myself as extremely fortunate to have a line manager who is pushing me to be the very best I can be - and allowing me freedom in my role to achieve and carry out my work in an arms-length yet encouraging and supportive way."

In this example, the line manager is able to skilfully circumvent the tensions emanating from outside of their sphere and shield their staff by creating an encouraging and supportive working climate, empowering their staff to thrive in their role.

The feedback presented here highlights the contrasting experiences of support: from brilliant to the almost non-existent.

The positive examples show ways in which employers can ease the stresses and strains of working in an unstable work environment through implementing effective supportive measures.

Furthermore, POS offers insight into how well the employment deal is working, by drawing attention to the gap between expectation and reality.

References  

Alfes, K., Madden A, Truss, C., Robinson D., Buzzeo J., Fletcher, L., Holmes., J. (2014) NIHR Staff engagement in the NHS Staff engagement in the NHS Review of practioner studies, Report
Chen, Z., Eisenberger, R., Johnson, K.M., Sucharski, I.L and Aselage, J. (2009) Perceived organisational support and extra-role performance: which leads to which? Journal of Social Psychology, 149, 119-24.
Guest, D. & Conway, N. (2002). Communicating the psychological contract: an employer perspective. Human Resource Management Journal, 12 (2), 22-38

About Fatima Elmi

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