There’s an old saying that goes “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”. Such a thing can be said about work engagement, it can be taken for granted and only appreciated once it’s lost, either to burnout or to a state close to it.
The most recurring definition of work engagement states it as “a positive, fulfilling, work-related affective- cognitive state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption” (Schaufeli et al., 2002). Its three dimensions are vigor, related to the high levels of energy one has while working; dedication, regarding the pride and enthusiasm that comes from performing tasks; and lastly, absorption which refers to the state of deep focus in the work that one seems to be immersed in.
Burnout and work engagement: twins or enemies?
Sometimes it’s hard to define something without also thinking of an opposing idea. That’s the case with burnout and work engagement. Either as opposite ends of the same spectrum or as completely separate entities, these two concepts seem to work hand in hand, with work engagement representing the positives, and burnout the negatives.
In the late 90s, three researchers (Maslach, Leiter and Schaufeli 2001) put work engagement, within the context of occupational well-being, as the opposite of burnout: in the correct circumstances one tends to start a new job with complete energy (vigor) and enthusiasm for tasks, and as stressful situations arise, energy lowers and dedication drops, leading to the path to burnout.
An important note here: However, there’s another interesting view coming from two authors, Schaufeli & Bakker, that states that even though these can be considered opposite concepts, the absence of one state does not necessarily mean that the other state is present.
A person can be going through something at work where they are lacking enthusiasm, and therefore lacking work engagement, but this doesn’t automatically mean that they are burned out. A compromise could be to understand that there’s a gray area and that it’s important to try to identify the signals that can show the path to burnout, so there’s time to stop it from completely unraveling.
These ideas are gaining more and more empirical evidence which leads us to new fields of understanding to prevent burnout and promote work engagement.