Who’s whistling the loudest while they work?

How Canadian organizations stack up against the rest of the world in terms of employee engagement

by Brian Banks

Who's whistling the loudest while they work?

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images/ Eduardo Martino/Panos

AON Hewitt - Best Employers in Canada

Compared to their counterparts in much of Europe, Canadian workers log more hours, take shorter vacations and have to wait longer for full retirement benefits and pensions. Yet it’s in France where workers are occupying refineries and taking to the streets, in a bid to choke off the economy and force the government to reverse a decision to bump the retirement age from 60 to 62. What if these yawning differences between Canadian and European attitudes toward work, employers and institutional entitlement could be quantified, scored and further explained?

In fact, they can, and they already are. Aon Hewitt, the global HR consulting and outsourcing firm that annually identifies Canada’s Best Employers, has all kinds of employee engagement data that allows for international comparisons. What those show is that while improving engagement may be the mantra of human resources managers and consultants the world over, actual engagement scores are far from uniform. Employee engagement, which is ultimately a reflection of companies delivering against the expectations of their employees, is shaped by local culture and history as much as it is best practices. In some cases, it might even point to underlying causes of labour unrest and economic uncertainty.

Canada does well in Aon Hewitt’s analysis, with an overall average engagement score of approximately 62 per cent, six points higher than the global average. That’s just slightly ahead of the North American average (60 per cent), which is followed closely by the Asia Pacific region (57 per cent). The one region ahead of Canada is Latin America (75 per cent). Conspicuously trailing the pack, with an average engagement score of just 49 per cent, is Europe.

Engagement scores are calculated by averaging employees’ responses to six questions—a willingness to recommend their firm to a friend seeking employment, for example, or holding the view that the organization inspires them to do their best work every day. “We’re trying to use a few survey questions to try to get a high level measure of the degree to which employees are intellectually and emotionally committed to their organizations,” says Neil Crawford, principal at Aon Hewitt. The more engaged the employee, the better their performance, the more likely they’ll stay, the more likely they’ll attract other high-calibre employees, all of which is better for their employers.

Europe’s low average score and penchant for extreme labour unrest suggest a potential correlation, according to Crawford. “In different parts of the world, people management or attitudes to people in organizations are different,” says Crawford. “There’s a lot of things in a lot of European work environments, particularly when you look at France and Germany and, to a certain degree, Italy, where there is a different mindset around work and around individual performance compared to, say, North America.”

One aspect of the data that reveals such distinctions is related to workers’ satisfaction with their employer benefits. More than two-thirds (67 per cent) of Canadians and 58 per cent of Latin American workers say their benefit plans meet their needs, whereas only 40 per cent of European workers say this is the case. According to Crawford, this reflects the fact that more benefits are likely provided by the state in Europe, so there’s less of an expectation for it from work.

Other drivers showing significant spreads between top and bottom scores include “my pay is appropriate,” which only 32 per cent of European workers agree with, compared to 54 per cent in Latin America and 47 per cent in Canada, and “enjoyment of daily work tasks,” a category that finds 83 per cent of Latin American workers in agreement compared to just 58 per cent in Europe, 61 per cent in Asia Pacific and 66 per cent in Canada and the U.S.

Crawford, as well as several other researchers and consultants in the field, warn that it’s risky to draw too many conclusions based on data that’s averaged from huge regions with lots of differences between countries. At the same time, local factors clearly play a role in determining overall engagement scores. “On one hand, it’s about the individual employees’ cognitive, emotional and behavioural perceptions about the work that they’re doing,” says Danielle van Jaarsveld, an associate professor at the Sauder School of Business in Vancouver. “But on the other hand, the employee’s perceptions can also be influenced by institutional characteristics of the country that they’re working in.”

Van Jaarsveld, who has spent seven years studying workplaces in the call centre sector all over the world, says cultural values also play a role. Lower scores in Europe might be expected, she says, when you consider there’s a great deal of collaboration between employees and managers through work councils and unions. “They’re more likely to be more critical of their employers as a result,” she says.

At the other end of the spectrum—both in terms of engagement scores as well as business culture and the development of a social safety net—is Latin America, which has the highest levels of engagement. “When you’re thinking about employees in Latin America, they have expectations for a more paternalistic style of leadership,” van Jaarsveld says. “So when we look at their leadership scores on this list, they rank their leadership the highest. Part of that has to do with cultural values and expectations about leadership and their expectations related to that.”

It’s important to note here that effective leadership is one of several drivers that research shows to consistently have the biggest influence on overall engagement scores. Hence, Latin America’s high overall totals. Other key drivers that promote engagement (regardless of location) include things like strong possibility of career advancement, recognition for good work, as well as the existence of effective processes and appropriate challenges and tasks.

Because domestic market influences appear to affect overall engagement scores as much as individual company practices, Crawford says it’s easier to use engagement scores to compare companies within countries rather than between them. On the other hand, he notes, “We have certainly seen that all best employers tend to share some consistent characteristics regardless of geography when compared to non-best employers. When we go into those organizations and do focus groups with employees, we hear lots of great things, we hear employees talking positively about constructive criticism. In organizations that score low we see frustration, we see management teams with low engagement scores and we hear employees talk about people managers who aren’t all that effective.”

David Zinger, a Winnipeg-based independent coach and consultant on employee engagement, also suspects that local influences are stronger than macro factors. Yet while some experts say that economic factors don’t play as big a role as corporate culture in determining engagement, Zinger believes he is seeing trends in engagement that reflect countries’ relative levels of economic health and stability. “Anecdotally, I think Canada has been doing quite well around engagement,” says Zinger. “The economic and political environment has been stronger than in some countries. The U.S. really struggled and is still struggling, and we all know what France is going through.”

Then again, van Jaarsveld speculates that economic uncertainty has the potential to boost engagement everywhere. “I would expect that employees would, right across the board, be more engaged right now,” she says. “Because they don’t necessarily have the same opportunities to find a job elsewhere that they would have had pre-recession.”

Van Jaarsveld also cautions that just because Latin America has the highest engagement levels doesn’t necessarily mean it has the best employers or best workplaces compared to the rest of the world. “A lot of the countries there have a dual labour market,” she says. “So you tend to have a small segment of the workforce that is working in full-time jobs that are well paid, with a higher level of job quality, and then you have a larger segment of the workforce that is on the periphery of the market. And so it makes sense to me that if you’re working in Latin America and you’re working in one of these better jobs, you’re going to be much more engaged, because you want to keep that job.”

Considering that Aon Hewitt’s studies include six primary engagement questions as well as questions about a total of 21 drivers that contribute to feelings about engagement, there’s a lot of micro-level data in the research to consider. Among the more telling results, Crawford singles out work-life balance. While the issue is not as powerful as some of the others mentioned above, he says the fact that work-life balance approval scores are very similar in all regions, despite the fact that people in different countries work very different schedules, underscores the fact that employee engagement studies are really best seen as relative measures against employee expectations. “Again, we can go back to the retirement age example,” he says. “In France they are ready to burn down buildings because they want to move the retirement age from 60 to 62. Here, we look at 65 as a pretty normal retirement age.” Crawford’s conclusion: “If you start to think about expectations, it starts to explain why we see different engagement levels. People will intuitively assess those six engagement questions against what they expect work should be like and what it is.”




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Who’s whistling the loudest while they work?

  1. The writer had better do a little more fact checking. While he is busy slagging the French, the reality is that Canada loses more than 2x the amount of time per capita as France does. In other words, Canadians go on strike more than anybody else in the world! But understand this – most of the lost time due to strikes is in Quebec! I will let you read into that what you want…

    • I agree the writer needs to look much deeper.
      As a Canadian who was born in Europe and worked there for many years. Many UK employees would have a very critical response as expectations are very high in the best companies. The Virgin group or example are streets ahead of what I have seen or heard about North American companies.
      Rapid growth in South America has raised their drive and view of work.
      European countries are almost all socialist by North American standards, no healthcare required so people look less to their employer and more to the state for some of life's goodies.
      I see Ryan asking if their are kickbacks.
      His question helps explain the employer attitude difference, happy workers are more productive and need less management.
      Even the arch basa's Wal-mart accept unions and learned so much about extracting profit from their foray into the UK all their new North American stores look like ASDA or Tesco

  2. are there kickbacks for making the top fifty? I amCurrently an employee for aecon inc, and have no idea how they were rewarded this honour. Management is poor and disorganized and there are few oppurtunities to move up. This company preaches safety but when it comes down to the dollar everything goes out the window. Employee feed backs are read by the superintendent and scrutinized to the point of embarrassment. Maclean's should research a little deeper before giving a prestigious award like this to a company like aecon inc. Poor choice. Whoever reads this comment don't disregard this message and say that I am a just disgruntled employee looking for a vent. I have worked with and know scores of employees in aecon inc. who feel this exact way.

    • Ryan, i can't help but be really troubled by your comments. While we are working very hard to be a great employer, and being recognized as an Employer of Choice is something we are very proud of, clearly as hard as we are trying we aren't yet succeeding everywhere and with everyone. Candour is an important part of our culture, and so i'd really encourage you to discuss your concerns and ideas for improvement with your manager and to make sure he or she really understands. If you are more comfortable, please send me (Scott Balfour) a confidential email (sbalfour@aecon.com). I can't guarantee all of your concerns can be addressed, or all of your ideas adopted, but i can guarantee they will be heard and considered. Scott Balfour – President, Aecon Group Inc.

  3. I love where I work…gives me life!

  4. Data is skewed, enough said.

  5. Wow who really believes this, these articles are written by the same media outlets reptitively to make people believe certain things happening far from home. Believe only half of what you see and nothing of what you read.

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