There is one evidence-based concept that HR practitioners should embrace and apply to "make a real difference" in their organisation in the next 12 months, according to eminent HR academic Dr Roger Collins.
"Wellbeing", which benefits both employees and employers, should replace employer-centric "engagement" as the dominant concept in HR, he says.
Addressing the topic of "hard truths, dangerous half-truths and total nonsense" in HR at a Directioneering breakfast last week, Collins, who is an emeritus professor at the University of NSW, said the economic conditions of the last 10 years had "masked a lot of ineffective organisational practices.
"We've kidded ourselves that we've done a really good job... [when] fate has been on our side".
He says HR suffers from a "lack of substance" and fails to demonstrate that it has a robust body of knowledge that makes a difference in organisations.
He draws a comparison with medicine, where there is little dispute about effective treatments and a gap of only one or two months between finding evidence of what works and using it in practice.
HR needs to "shorten the cycle between when we discover stuff and when we use it", he says.
"Engagement has run its course"
There are three areas where HR can improve the contribution of employees to an organisation's performance and competitive advantage: utilisation; competency; and the psychological contract, Collins says.
Collins questions "whether we can squeeze more" out of the first two areas.
People are already over-utilised, in some cases almost to the point of burnout, and so much has been done on improving performance and developing potential that "we are approaching the point of marginal utility, he says. In other words, we can put our resources somewhere else and get better outcomes".
He says that following morale, job satisfaction and commitment, "engagement" is now the dominant concept in the psychological contract area of HR.
But, he says, "I want to put the case that I think engagement has run its course. I think engagement is too employer-centric."
When employees are engaged and act as advocates for their employer, "it's not a bad thing, but the primary benefit comes to the employer, not the individual".
Engagement also helps to retain staff and encourage a higher level of performance from them, but: "We've got to move beyond that because it's not a sustainable outcome. Just saying 'it's all for us and a little bit for you' doesn't build sustainable relationships."
Wellbeing brings mutual benefits
While engagement is predominantly, but not exclusively, employer-centric, employee wellbeing has benefits for both parties, Collins says. "That's why I think we'll have to evolve in that direction."
Wellbeing, he says, is a state of mind in which we think and feel that we are in charge of our life and what happens to us. In this state we also feel that we have frequent positive experiences. These build up resilience, Collins says, by working like a bank account that we can draw down on in difficult times.
What builds wellbeing?
"The way in which we offer experiences to our people at work are very important in terms of building wellbeing," Collins says.
Employers can improve the wellbeing of workers by facilitating:
Pleasure. Fun experiences at work increase pleasure. However, Collins says, it's important to be mindful that workers' minds can adjust so that they take fun for granted. He calls this "the Paris Hilton phenomenon. You have a great party and then need another one the next day."
Experiences that lead to human flourishing. "When you do what you do best most of the time, it's a positive experience," Collins says. This contributes to "flow" - a state where performance is at its highest.
Meaning. "To the extent that we can get our people to think about others, it creates intrinsic rewards which are very powerful," Collins says. When organisations encourage their people to "get out and do things" for charity, rather than taking the "easy" option of just giving money, it rewards not only the recipient but also the giver, he says.
The benefits of wellbeing include that it builds resilience, which will be particularly important during the current and approaching times of change, Collins says, but it also contributes to better health, longer life expectancy, stronger self-efficacy and improved cognitive functioning.
He says the evidence from positive psychology, regarding building wellbeing and resilience, advocates that employers should:
Emphasise workers' strengths. People who are given feedback on their strengths are more likely to feel highly engaged and be more productive than those given feedback on their weaknesses. "That's not to say that we don't deal with problems in performance or behaviour," Collins says.
Express gratitude. The psychological benefits of gratitude can be measured two years later, Collins says. "We often forget to say thank you. If you thank people at work, the benefit is to them but also to yourself."
Be genuine. Authenticity is critical, and Collins says, "The risk now is that during tough times we don't tell it how it is."
Care and connect. Collins says, "these are close to tree hugging, but without these we won't establish long-term relationships in our organisations."
Communicate. This also means listening and asking for ideas and feedback, he says.