Coping mechanisms are the tools and strategies we use to deal with stress in our lives. Our various ways of coping eventually create a coping strategy.
You can cope with stress in positive or negative ways. A negative coping strategy might be to ignore your problems and emotions, hoping they just work themselves out (but that’s bad for your health). Positive coping strategies, on the other hand, allow you to deal with stress in healthy ways.
We’ve found in previous research that employee engagement is likely a positive coping strategy, with highly engaged employees filtering information and situations differently than less engaged employees. To expand on this idea, we conducted research about emotions in the workplace.
In our study, respondents were asked “Which of the following options causes you to feel negative emotions most frequently?” Below are their responses, broken out by engagement:
Employees who believe that none of the above options causes them to feel negative emotions had the highest levels of engagement.
This suggests that higher levels of engagement may be associated with a denial or re-framing of negativity or that engaged employees are more likely to show optimism. They may quickly forget about, overlook, or not frame these emotions as negative when asked about them later.
The factors with the most direct impact on employees—their jobs and coworkers—were the strongest sources associated with less engaged employees. This underscores the strong link between an employee’s engagement and their immediate job tasks and responsibilities.
Respondents were also asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the idea that feeling or showing negative or positive emotions at work can only result in negative or positive outcomes.
Favorable responses align with having a narrow view of emotional outcomes: thinking that negative emotions only lead to negative outcomes or that positive emotions only lead to positive outcomes.
Employees who have a broad view of negative emotions have high levels of engagement, yet employees who have a narrow view of positive emotions also have high levels of engagement.
These results further add to the story that high engagement is a coping strategy, with high engagement promoting positivity bias. In particular, highly engaged employees are more open-minded when it comes to potential outcomes of negative emotions, but are more close-minded when it comes to potential outcomes of positive emotions.
On the one hand, engagement is a negativity filter. At the same time, it promotes positivity bias. These are coping mechanisms. What this all means is that employee engagement is a coping strategy, and highly engaged employees are more positive than less engaged employees.
This conclusion is supported by other research. For example, a meta-analysis in the Journal of Organizational Behavior analyzed results from 114 separate studies and found that positive moods and emotions are very strong predictors of engagement.
This finding allows us to evolve how we talk about engagement — or rather, how we talk about disengagement. If we think of highly engaged employees as being highly connected to their jobs, teams, and organizations, then we can think of disengaged employees as being disconnected from those things.
Yet if we consider the current discussion, disengaged employees could be people who can’t cope, or don’t know how to cope, in healthy ways. Sure, those employees might simply be poor fits for their roles, coworkers, industry, etc.
But if we’re more charitable in how we approach disengaged employees—viewing them through the lens of re-connection and strengthening their coping mechanisms (instead of ignoring them or hoping they just go away)—it could shift how we view other factors of work.
Ultimately, if we frame employee engagement as a coping strategy for the stresses of work, that allows us to think of new and better ways to both engage and re-engage employees.
There's no doubt that emotions impact the workplace — especially when it comes to employee engagement. Get your copy of our ebook, Emotions in the Workplace, for more data and insights.