Work is Broken

on April 5, 2018

“Employee engagement.” The phrase first hit the scene in 1990, when William A. Kahn used it in an article he wrote for the Academy of Management Journal. Since then, the business world has become more than a little obsessed with these two little words.  CEOs, human resources executives, managers, and thousands of others have spent hours upon hours contemplating just how their organization can make a dent in the country’s dismal 30% employee engagement rate.

Yet, despite the fact that many organizations now have “Chief Engagement Officers” tasked with the job of inspiring and motivating people, Gallup tracks every move we make at work to help us analyze and improve, and consultancies like Great Places to Work set benchmarks to aspire to, the needle hasn’t moved in the past several years. That’s not a good thing.

The 173 Billion Hour Problem

The amount of hours wasted by employee disengagement is massive. According to recent Labor Market Information data, there are more than 149 million people in the workforce1. Unfortunately, Gallup reports that a whopping 68.5% of these people are disengaged2. What does this mean? Well, when the engagement stats are applied to the workforce number, we’re left with approximately 102 million people – or two times the total population of the 50 largest cities in the country combined3 – who are probably not contributing effectively at work. All of this translates to 173 billion hours or more than $350 billion of lost productivity every year!

While this is certainly significant on its own, employee disengagement is more than a productivity issue. The fact that so many people are spending so much time at a place where they really don’t want to be is a human tragedy. To put it bluntly, work is broken. The engagement programs, solutions, and tactics currently being employed aren’t effective. We need to dig deep and figure out why this is and how we’re going to fix it.

Root’s CEO, Jim Haudan, and I are setting out on a journey to help organizations with this very tragic problem and will be documenting our findings in a new book, which will come out in 2018. We plan to identify the organizational beliefs that are no longer relevant and establish some new ways of thinking that will help us all make engagement a realistic part of our workday.

It’s time to reconsider some of the standards and expectations we have put so much faith in and challenge them.

Setting Aside Trusted Work Practices

Remember when society believed that seat belts were not just uncool, but completely unnecessary and potentially dangerous? When we believed that covering ourselves in oil was mandatory before hitting the beach? Or when doctors endorsed cigarettes as safe digestive aids and stress relievers?

If you’re of the age to remember the lack of seat belts, the popularity of cigarettes, and the love of SPF 0, then you can likely also attest that our country not only adopted these behaviors, we trusted them – almost blindly.

Jim and I want to help organizations identify where they are blindly following tradition without reason. We believe there are a core set of workplace values and practices that are outdated. They fundamentally don’t work in today’s workplace – and they’re causing major problems.

We hope you find our recommendations compelling and useful. Our goal in writing this new book is to help, to inspire, and to start conversations that bring new and risky thinking to life so together we can end our country’s tragic pattern of disengagement.

Work is broken. And we can fix it.



  • This could be a minor quibble or something significant. Kahn never used the term employee engagement, he used the word personal engagement. I think his distinction is an important one, but that is one man’s opinion. He also talked about psychological safety for engagement and it seems we are just catching up to that in the past few years.

  • Michelle Walker

    I’m excited to see the research and read the forthcoming book! And I wonder if the system is truly broken, or whether it was simply constructed this way (that is, it was never meant to work in the way that we expect it to today). I haven’t been in Corporate America for all that long, so I can’t speak to the original validity of these antiquated processes.


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