Engaging with disengagement: Alienation in the public sector in the UK and Ireland

Edel Conway, Na Fu, Kathy Monks, Katie Bailey, Kerstin Alfes

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Research into work engagement continues apace (see Bailey et al., 2015 for an overview of recent research). However, as Purcell (2014: 244) points out, the influence of positive psychology which underpins much engagement research may mean that such research provides 'a distorting and misleading mirror on the world of work and the experience of workers in employment'. This paper aims to provide a counterbalance to the emphasis on engagement within the positive psychology movement. We contend that an enhanced understanding of engagement is gained by understanding more about the processes underpinning and resulting from disengagement which we explore through our attention to alienation, defined as 'estrangement or disconnect from work, the context or self' (Nair and Vohra, 2009: 296). We believe that our focus on alienation in a public sector context is particularly apposite given the decline in terms and conditions of employment that have been experienced by its employees over the last number of years as a result of the European economic downturn that followed the 2008 banking crisis.
We situate our rationale for the exploration of alienation within the framework of 'analytical HRM' with its understanding that 'the fundamental mission of the academic management discipline of HRM is not to propagate perceptions of "best practice" in "excellent companies" but, first of all, to identify and explain what happens in practice' (Boxall et al., 2007: 4). In adopting this approach, we focus on the three characteristics of analytical HRM: the 'what' and 'why' in trying to understand 'what management tries to do with work and people in different contexts and with explaining why'; the 'how' 'in the chain of processes that make models of HRM work well (or poorly)'; and 'questions of "for whom and how well", with assessing the outcomes of HRM taking account of both employee and managerial interests, and laying a basis for theories of wider social consequence' (ibid: 7).
We utilise the tools and techniques of psychology in undertaking our analysis but do so within a multi-disciplinary perspective and with a conscious attempt to avoid the pitfalls of the increasing 'psychologisation' of the study of employment relations (Godard, 2013). By paying due regard to the analytical HRM framework (Boxall et al. 2007), we take account of the contexts and wider social setting within which our research was situated. Thus we compare two samples of workers: one comprising officers and staff in a police force within the UK, the second comprising employees in a large public sector organisation in Ireland, in order to try and understand the contextual conditions that may impact alienation and disengagement from work as such understanding has been largely missing from the extant literature (Jenkins and Delbridge, 2013; Bailey et al., 2015).
In our attention to alienation we return to the roots of engagement, focusing on the work of Kahn (1990) and his distinction between engagement and disengagement. In so doing, we use role theory within the multi-disciplinary framework proposed by Kahn to explore whether factors such as the design of jobs, opportunities for involvement, and role overload are linked to alienation and whether these then impact on employees in terms of their perceptions of their well-being and their intention to leave their employment.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016
Externally publishedYes
Event19th Annual Irish Academy of Management Conference 2016: Leading and Managing in 'Interesting Times': Learning for a Better Tomorrow - UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, Dublin, Ireland
Duration: 31 Aug 20162 Sept 2016
Conference number: 19th


Conference19th Annual Irish Academy of Management Conference 2016
Abbreviated titleIAM 2016
Internet address

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