Work engagement & work alienation: distinct or opposites?

AuthorPati, Surya Prakash
PositionStatistical data

Work engagement and work alienation are considered as bipolar opposites of each other by many researchers. This paper examines whether the sets of items measuring work engagement and work alienation indeed measure similar experiences. Confirmatory factor analysis on 269 responses drawn from various occupational groups reveals that it is erroneous to consider both the constructs as opposite ends of a single continuum. This inference is also reinforced by the pattern of relationship observed between work engagement and work alienation with their antecedents (i.e. occupational self efficacy and meaning) on the one hand and the consequences (job satisfaction and turnover intention) on the other.


Brought to prominence by the writings of Marx (1932), research on alienation gradually peaked to establish the same as a central concept in the social sciences of the twentieth century, specifically in the emerging discipline of sociology (Case, 2008). Mann (2001), citing the Oxford Dictionary, defines alienation as "the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved". The definition summarizes to a large extent the various perspectives on the construct. Thus Horowitz (1966) discusses alienation to be an intense separation first from the objects of the world, second from the people and third from the shared understanding about the world held by other people. Similarly Overend (1975) defines alienation to be a separation of the individual from citizen body, from nature, from production, from other individuals and ultimately from oneself, thereby echoing a "disturbance in a relationship" (Schabracq & Cooper, 2003). The depiction of the construct by Fromm (1955) is also in similar lines. He refers alienation as a state where the individual experiences oneself as an alien, i.e. become estranged from the self. It is a disconnection or a cognitive state of separation in relation to some other element in his or her environment (Kanungo, 1979).

In recent years many researchers are increasingly considering work engagement (1) as the hypothetical obverse of alienation (e.g. Mann, 2001; Case, 2008; Nair & Vohra, 2010; Bothma & Roodt, 2012). Work engagement has been defined as expressed empowerment pertaining to a role, which manifests as passionate task performance and organization citizenship behaviors (Pati & Kumar, 2011; Pati, 2012). While passionate task performance (PTP) refers to investment of discretionary effort in one's assigned task, i.e. investment of extra time, brainpower and energy (Towers-Perrin, 2003), in not just generating more of the usual (Macey & Schneider, 2008), but bringing about something different and beneficial, organization citizenship behaviors (OCB) comprise specific behavior facets that contribute to enhancement of organizational effectiveness yet are often overlooked and inadequately measured in traditional assessment of job performance. Anchoring their view on the premise of many authors opposing the in-role/extra-role approach of studying OCB (e.g. Graham, 1991; Vey & Campbell, 2004), Pati & Kumar (2011) highlighted the importance of OCB as a prime medium to bring about an engaging culture in the workplace and hence to be regarded as a necessary role behavior as well as a dimension of work engagement.

However there exists little empirical evidence to support the assumption of bipolarity between work alienation and work engagement. The aim of this study is to investigate whether the items assessing the hypothesized opposites of work alienation and work engagement, are embeddable on a single underlying bipolar dimension. The current study is an addition to the extant stream of research centered on unearthing the bipolar opposite of work engagement.

Background Research

In an earlier attempt, Maslach & Leiter (1997) theorized burnout to be the negative antithesis of work engagement. They argued burnout to be interpreted as loss of engagement with the job, and is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy (2). Consequently, the diametrical opposites of the above constructs, i.e. energy, involvement and efficacy respectively characterize work engagement. Further, in line with their argument, they contended that the reverse of the score as assessed through the Maslach Burnout Inventory--General Survey (MBI-GS) (Schaufeli, Leiter, Maslach & Jackson, 1996), provided an insight into an individual's degree of work engagement.

The above theory received further credence with the construction of the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI) (Demerouti & Bakker, 2008), which assesses the two burnout dimensions of exhaustion and disengagement. However, unlike MBI-GS, which contains one directional formulation of items in each subscale, OLBI includes both positively and negatively worded items for each dimension, and hence argued to be psychometrically superior. Thus, positively worded items had to be reverse- coded to assess burnout while the same applies to the negatively worded items if one wishes to measure work engagement (Demerouti & Bakker, 2008).

In contrast, Schaufeli, et al (2002) refuted the bipolar measurement of work engagement and burnout, arguing that theoretical opposites need not necessarily translate to antithetical treatment of a single measure (i.e. MGI-GS). They contended that since MBI-GS exclusively comprised unidirectional items, it is, thus, difficult to infer that a respondent's rejection of a negatively worded item means her/his acceptance of a positively worded item. Accordingly they concluded that burnout and work engagement should be conceived as two opposite yet independent concepts, which therefore needs to be assessed through two independent instruments. Their perspective resulted in the design of the Utrecht Work Engagement Survey (UWES -9) (Schaufeli, Bakker & Salanova, 2006), arguably the most widely used measure of work engagement in recent times (Alok, 2013).

However, it was only Gonzalez-Roma, et al. (2006), who originally attempted to explore empirically the existence of a bipolar relationship between the core burnout and engagement dimensions. Accordingly they investigated whether items reflecting exhaustion (burnout) and vigor (work engagement) dimensions are scalable on a single dimension labeled as 'energy' (as labeled by Schaufeli et al., 2002). Similarly, they also investigated whether items corresponding to the dimensions of cynicism (burnout) and dedication (work engagement) are scalable on a single dimension labeled as 'identification' (as labeled by Schaufeli et al. 2002). Employing Mokken analysis across three distinct samples, they found adequate evidence to establish that the core burnout and engagement dimensions could be viewed as inverses along two distinct bipolar dimensions of energy and identification.

Recently Demerouti, Mostert & Bakker (2010) conducted a more detailed study towards testing of the bipolar proposition between the core burnout and work engagement dimensions. Subjecting the items of exhaustion-vigor and cynicism-dedication dyads (borrowed from MBI-GS and UWES respectively) to confirmatory factor analysis (CFA), as well as observing their pattern of relationship shared with other constructs, they inferred that while cynicism and dedication could be construed to be opposites along a single 'identification' dimension, exhaustion and vigor were best represented as distinct yet highly related dimensions, unscalable on a single 'energy' dimension.


With partial negation of the propositioned bipolar relationship between burnout and work engagement, off late researchers across...

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