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Team Effectiveness

Should We Take an Upstream Approach to Employee Engagement?

upstream employee engagement

Photo by Joao Branco on Unsplash

Upstream thinking encourages a holistic understanding of employee satisfaction

Recently while working with my team on a healthcare proposal, I was struck by the concept of the “upstream” approach. It resonated for me because it relates to how we develop our leaders and how we should think about employee engagement–instead of a “quick-fix” mindset.

Simply put, upstream is a method of thinking about the context surrounding the result. It is the idea that one cannot effectively address health issues without considering the “big picture” – which can include things far out of the individual’s control.

In a healthcare context these outside factors could include public policy, schooling, or social class, ethnicity, gender, etc. While not exactly a cause and effect, these upstream factors can influence a person’s environment, and ultimately, health. Healthcare services often intersect at the point between environment and health – in effect treating the disease, not the symptoms.

This understanding prompted me to think: Are there invisible factors in organizations impacting our path to engaging and retaining leaders?

Employee engagement is (and has been) historically low for a significant period of time. Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report shows that around 70 percent of employees are not engaged – well over the majority of our workforce.

What are the potential upstream causes for low employee engagement?



While many companies include flexible hours, work-life balance, or even job sharing in their list of benefits to attract and retain employees, Deloitte’s 2018 Human Capital Workplace trends report finds there is often a significant gap between what the companies are offering and what it takes to actually retain employees.

A recent Cigna Health study found that loneliness is at an alarming high, with Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) actually reporting higher levels of feeling lonely than senior populations. Of especial importance to employers is that Cigna’s study found that the workplace can have a significant effect on loneliness, especially when it promotes meaningful in-person connections.

External factors such as student loan debt, housing situation, and aging parents that need care can greatly impact an employee’s well-being in their day-to-day lives. In response, organizations are shifting to treating well-being as a strategy–even a responsibility–and a priority instead of a benefit, in order to look beyond the traditional mindset of just making an employee happy at work.


Pay Equality

It goes without saying that payment inequalities could represent one of the most obvious opportunities to rectify a possible “upstream” issue affecting under-represented populations in the workplace. It has become more common to look at comparable jobs and ask if women and men are being paid differently for the same job, but a study by Glassdoor found one of the causes of inequality was the sorting of women and men into different jobs and industries.

In other words, for a variety of reasons, women and men often end up with different jobs; while it’s common for men to be doctors, it’s less common for them to be nurses. For women, the reverse is true: the majority of nurses are female, while fewer women become doctors. These factors also contribute to further pay discrepancies across gender, race, ethnicity, and other spectrums­. A different approach would be to ask if the same opportunities existed in the first place so that employees are able to choose the job they want. This reframes the issue of pay inequality as one of opportunity, instead of just policy.

One example: This past July, Salesforce has taken further steps to rectify a pay gap between men and women in its own workforce. In 2015 Cindy Robbins, the chief personnel officer, brought the issue to CEO Marc Benioff’s attention; through an all-company audit they found a statistically significant pay gap across the company, regardless of department, division, location, etc. Since 2015, the company has dedicated $8.7 million to closing compensation gaps related to gender, race, ethnicity, and other factors.


Employee Retention

Support from senior management, mentorship, regular meetings with managers, and continual evaluation and learning of new of skills are all factors that lead to higher levels of engagement–especially when it comes to the Millennial workforce. If an organization’s goal is to develop future leaders or support of their current leadership pipeline, then a good place to start are at the factors that lead Millennials to feel disenfranchised at work today.

Gallup’s How Millennials Want to Work and Live gives a lot of insight into the factors that lead this generation of workers to be unengaged. While a lot has been written about Millennials ‘entitlement’ a better lens is to consider their ‘expectations’ or even better, their ‘empowerment” – they want their work to be fulfilling, meaningful, and moreover, full of development opportunities.

As the report says: “Millennials fundamentally think about jobs as opportunities to learn and grow. Their strong desire for development is, perhaps, the greatest differentiator between them and all other generations in the workplace.”

Tapping into this expectation of meaningfulness is a tremendous opportunity for employers. Earlier access to leadership development, responsibility for managing a project or leading a meeting, and continued building and training, coupled with ample feedback and mentoring, will pay dividends in the future.


Some of the things that make employees unhappy with their work lives are things that have little (or even nothing) to do with daily work: a long commute, financial stressors, or policies that cause undue burden. With the national unemployment rate at 4 percent, companies who think holistically about employee engagement–instead of resorting to gimmicks like ping pong tables in the office–will see the benefits. And since employee engagement is linked to retention, increased productivity, and better business results, these companies will reap the rewards.

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Lauren Parkhill

Lauren Parkhill leads the marketing team in creating creative content that helps organizations develop their leaders and teams.