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Educators are Disengaged and Distracted. Better Workplace Culture Could Win Them Back.

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Last fall, I made it a goal to go to my office on campus a few times a week. Strictly speaking, I didn’t need to be there. The courses I taught were online, as were all of my meetings. But I felt a strange need to physically be there, perhaps in preparation for what seemed like a slow yet inexorable walk toward “normal” or as a reminder of how my work fit into a bigger picture. I even bought new plants to freshen up the space. Most days, it was eerily quiet in my building. Sometimes the hallway lights were even turned off, as if it were summer—except it wasn’t.

Occasionally, I would run into a colleague grabbing mail or, more likely, an administrator running between meetings. One day, a department chair popped into my office and, while discussing an upcoming faculty meeting, asked me, “How do I re-energize them? How do I bring my faculty back?” Although I was doing interviews at that time for a piece on low morale in higher education, I didn’t have a good answer to her question. How do we re-engage faculty and staff for the next phase, whatever that might be?

Since then, the omicron variant has fueled another surge, and my goal of being on campus a few times a week shriveled up like the plants I forgot to water. Still, I couldn’t get the department chair’s question out of my mind. And finding answers to this question became even more pressing after I wrote about faculty disengagement with my colleague Alisa Hicklin Fryar. Both of us have received countless emails affirming the pervasiveness of the problem and asking the same basic question.

I’ve been reading popular management books and academic literature in pursuit of answers. One name kept popping up, particularly as I explored employee engagement: Brad Shuck. Shuck is a professor of human resource and organizational development at the University of Louisville and co-founder of the start-up OrgVitals. He is a prolific scholar of employee engagement, and I’ve downloaded enough of his papers to keep me busy all semester.

I invited Shuck to chat and to share our conversation. Here is a lightly edited excerpt:

Kevin McClure: Let’s start with how you became interested in employee engagement.

Brad Shuck: I’ve been studying employee engagement academically for the last decade. I started during my time at Florida International University, as a doctoral student—and I just remained really curious about what makes work tick for so many employees, at all levels. That is, why do people engage and why do they push away? And I have continued that line of research throughout my tenure at the University of Louisville. It’s gone in a bunch of different directions, looking at leadership, looking at the connection between work and health, looking at compassion, looking at how we define, measure and understand engagement. And my colleagues and I have written extensively on definitions and measurement and overlapping variables.

McClure: Maybe you could put your professor hat on and talk a little bit about definitions because, obviously, we’re seeing a lot of articles coming out using terms that you’re probably very, very familiar with. But not everybody has a great handle on what they mean. What are we talking about when we say employee engagement?

Shuck: So, getting a little academic here, we would call engagement the maintenance, intensity, and direction of effort and energy that we give something. And, in its raw form, it’s just, where do I put my time and where do I put my heart? Where do I place my effort and my energy? We can talk about it in terms of community engagement, faculty engagement, family engagement, relationship engagement. If I’m leaning into something, I’m giving it my time and my attention and my energy. Employee engagement is just that applied to the workplace. It’s where I’m going to be giving my time and my effort when I am working.

I certainly think that there are pockets of disengagement, and we’re seeing more and more of that, but I also think there’s another phenomenon that’s occurring, and that’s this idea of distractedness. And that’s where everything matters at the same time and I don’t know where to put my attention. I would imagine that you will have readers who will sit down at their computer and they don’t even know where to start because they’re not sure where their goals are. And it’s not because their dean or chair didn’t give them an annual review or a work plan. It’s because there are so many things going on, it’s very difficult to concentrate and know what is important in that moment, because it all feels important.

And so disengagement is when I say, I don’t really care what happens here. I think it’s very emotional and driven by our affect—we begin to separate emotionally and cognitively, and then behaviorally, we kind of step away. But distractedness is when everything matters at the same time. And I don’t know where to put my time, my effort and my energy. And so it just feels really scattered.

McClure: One of the things that we slid into a later draft of our faculty disengagement piece is the idea that some of folks’ disengagement is not necessarily driven explicitly by the workplace itself or decisions by leaders or specific policies, but rather by everybody just being tired of everything. You know, their pulling away is just a desire for something new, something different. And trying to figure out what, what that next step might be.

Shuck: Well, and if I can, maybe a reevaluation of priorities. I have watched faculty members who would work 14-, 16-hour days going after those massive grants and those big publications. But now a faculty member may have to prioritize their time, effort, and energy back with their family a little bit because they’re home with them, or they were concerned about child care or virtual schooling with kids. Maybe some are realizing that the cost of burning that candle at both ends—day in and day out—was not worth the consequences that came along with it.

And so I think that there has been a reevaluation, and the cost of engaging at such a high level for some people is just not something that they can give at this time. And so what they did to protect themselves in a really fragile situation was dial back, so that they could be healthy—so that they could be whole.

The other thing I’ll say about this is that engagement has a natural ebb and flow to it. Engagement isn’t a boundless reservoir from which we can just draw all the time. But instead we go through these natural ebbs and flows, and those cycles are healthy because they allow us to heal and to rest and to reflect. That’s where we really begin to grow. For many, the last 18 months have been hard and they need to heal. We need to provide some space for that where we can and maybe that looks like renegotiating plans and reviews.

McClure: I’m glad you said that because I’ve often told some of my newer colleagues that there are seasons to academic work, and there might be a season where you are really into your teaching and you just have to step away from something else because maybe you were on a committee and it was an awful experience. And you just need to set that part of the academic work aside and kind of pull yourself into something else. And so it sounds like that is very much part of, for many people, of their work experience, to the extent that they have that discretion to make some of those choices.

Shuck: And I think it’s healthy. I really do. And it’s perhaps undervalued.

McClure: How does engagement connect to a concept like workplace culture? Is engagement kind of a necessary precondition for building culture?

Shuck: I would tell you that right now, culture is probably the most important thing that leaders can be thinking about. I’ve studied employee engagement for a really long time. And, to be clear, high levels of engagement are an outcome of a really great culture, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. And I’m glad that we’re beginning to have conversations in our institutions around equity, around inclusion, around belonging, around purpose, around alignment and connection. See, stress and engagement can live in the same space, right? But engagement doesn’t tell us how included I might feel or how equitable I feel like the environment might be. And, each of those experiences impact how engaged I can be.

And I may be really engaged because I love my work and I’m digging in. I want to lean in really hard and I want to be a part of this, but I can’t—that doesn’t mean I’m not engaged. It just means I don’t feel included.

And these facets of culture all live in a similar space. Like we can think back to times in our life where we worked in a place that may not have been healthy for us, physically or emotionally healthy. As a result, some colleagues may have manifested pain or lost sleep at night or developed coping habits that probably weren’t healthy for them. Culture is directly connected to those experiences of work.

What leaders need to be thinking about right now is: What is the unique value proposition of working in this institution at this time, and how do we help people lean in and belong here to the degree that they can really drive high levels of engagement? That is, how do we help people belong?

McClure: So that leads to the million-dollar question. In higher education, are you aware of some promising ideas, we’ll call them, when it comes to trying to rebuild after you have a situation where you’ve got employees who are burned out or have withdrawn?

Shuck: You know, so much of this is grounded in the things that are easy to do and easy not to do. I call this the cumulative principle. It is often not the big fanfare, not the big program, not the big platform, not the human resource movement, although those things are necessary at times. Many times, it’s that tired and perhaps overworked chair sending a note that says, “Hey, I just, I wanted you to know, thanks for being in the meeting the other day. I really appreciate it. Your contributions were really valued.” It’s possible that person hasn’t heard a word of encouragement in three years. And the only face time that they get with somebody like that is to go over their annual review. And the annual review meeting is limited to 15 or 20 minutes because a chair’s got 50 different faculty that they’ve got to get through.

The other thing that I recommend is finding unique ways for leaders to drive a sense of belonging with the institution. How do I belong here? What are the messages of belonging that I get either from my colleagues or my coworkers?

Early on in the pandemic, we released the COVID-19 Work Reality Scale. We just wanted to see what was going on. How were employees feeling? To a large extent, people felt distracted, disconnected and very stressed out. Mental health was on the floor. Through our analysis, we identified three very simple questions that really drove a high sense of engagement and a high sense of purpose and those were: (1) I feel supported by my supervisor, (2) I feel supported by my coworkers and (3) the work that I do here is meaningful. To the degree that somebody could answer those questions positively, they were more likely to be able to cope with high levels of stress. And, they were also more likely to tell us they were engaged with their institution. Those experiences of belonging and purpose are really important, especially right now. And, I do not see that changing in the near future, honestly.

The thing that I would add to that is, I think this is important for everyone to own. I don’t have to wait for my department chair, and I have a great chair, by the way. I don’t need to wait for my chair to reach out to me. I can take that responsibility, because I know that they need encouragement. They need to know that they belong, too, because it’s coming from everywhere. It’s coming from all directions. And at every level of the university, it’s coming all the way up to our president, right?

And so what I love about how we help each faculty and staff member belong and see their purpose is that it is positionless. It doesn’t require you to have a certain administrative title. Everybody can reach out to a colleague. Everybody can send a note of encouragement. Everybody can make sure that they’re driving a sense of purpose.

And other questions we need to be asking are: Who’s not in the room that we need to include? Are we including everyone? Is everyone here and are they represented? Is there a sense of equity here? Are there people whose voices we haven’t heard from yet?

To sum this up, I’m going to go back to the things that are easy to do and easy not to do—at the end of the day, they make the difference. And then you pair that up with a talent-management strategy that leans in on human resource development, you have a really powerful tool to combat disengagement.

McClure: Do you have any specific advice for people like the department chair who asked me how to bring their faculty back?

Shuck: In short, employee engagement is kind of grounded in [psychologist William] Kahn’s work on personal engagement—which lists three key experiences for engagement to emerge in practice: meaningfulness, safety and the availability of resources, and I think that universities and leaders need to be thinking deeply about those three areas.

Is it safe to be here? In the time of COVID, this was about physical safety, and how we took physical care of our teams and faculty/staff. But this is also just as much about emotional safety and social safety. For example, can I raise my hand in a meeting and share without fear of being judged or scoffed at? Can I put myself out there, and if I do, what will happen? Can I bring my full self here? Safety in teams—safety in work (will I have my job, is my job secure?)—and safety in community.

Resources are all about what I need to do my job, and this looks different going hybrid or remote. Do folks have the technology they need, chairs in their home offices like they do when they went to a physical office? Do they have the training, support, financial resources to meet burgeoning and ballooning (and in some cases impossible) recruitment, publication, teaching, advising, and budget numbers? Is there an acceptable level of tolerance for what is actually a reasonable level of work and work-related responsibility? If not, maybe we need to talk about it and redefine what that looks and feels like.

Over time, if we do not believe that we can do our work, and be great at it—it is psychologically safer to just disengage. Otherwise, we face a daily onslaught of failure, and that will wear any person down. That is where we start to see real problems.

In my opinion, we should all be having conversations about culture and work, and building really great places to work that also balance well-being, stress, health, community, value, belonging and support in ways that are tangible and equitable for every person in the room. That’s real engagement.


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