Why is employee engagement in the UK so chronically low?

This country has one of the world’s least engaged workforces. Part of this can be traced back to the industrial revolution, say experts in organisational behaviour and the employee experience

Disengaged Employee Stares Out Office Window

If you’re sitting at your desk feeling disengaged from your employer, you’re not alone – far from it, in fact. All but 10% of the UK employees responding to a survey published in Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace report feeling that way too. 

This makes the UK’s workforce one of the least engaged in the world. Only eight territories covered in the research – including Iran (9%), France (7%) and Hong Kong (6%) – have a lower percentage of engaged workers. The highest-ranked country on this criterion is Mali, where 47% of workers report feeling engaged.

Although the UK has actually improved on its 2022 score, it’s only by a single percentage point. That’s despite the fact that many firms in this country have prioritised engagement, investing heavily in improving the employee experience they offer. 

Anna Sawyer, principal partner at Gallup, compares the UK’s situation to that of a 10-person rowing crew in which only one member is pulling their full weight. 

“Imagine if you could change that and have half the crew rowing at full pelt. You’d be moving through the water so much faster,” she says. “There’s a real opportunity here for organisations to improve engagement, uplift their overall performance and drive growth.” 

Why UK workers are so disengaged

Gallup’s research covers 12 psychological needs that people seek to satisfy at work. These range from basics, such as having all the resources you require to do your job properly and understanding exactly what’s expected of you, all the way up to having enough opportunities to do what you’re good at and being able to connect your role to the organisation’s wider mission.

While the report makes it clear that few employers are fulfilling these psychological needs, external factors have also had a significant impact. Sawyer cites climate change, the cost-of-living crisis and pressure on public services as some of the concerns seeping into workplace discourse. 

“We don’t experience work in a vacuum. Our work and our life are highly interrelated,” she stresses.

Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, traces the roots of the UK’s engagement problem all the way back to the early 1800s, when the industrial revolution brought with it new technologies, working methods and more bureaucratic management practices.

“These rules improved productivity and reliability, but also created the conditions for disengagement. That’s because they reduced employees’ self-expression, their ability to experiment and learn, and their connection with the final product,” he explains.

While working hours and conditions have improved since the industrial revolution, it seems that our mentality may not have

Cable believes that the UK has clung to the remnants of that era’s management practices more firmly than most countries, as firms strive to comply with regulations and ensure consistent results. These types of workplaces also make it hard for employees to experiment, stretch beyond their specialisms, show off their skills and/or see the ultimate impact of their labour. 

“Most UK leaders don’t believe that people work best under these conditions, but each generation of managers walks into organisations where there are deeply entrenched assumptions and policies about control through standardised performance metrics, incentives and punishments that shut staff off from engaging,” he argues. “It can be hard to remember that employees don’t usually succumb to disengagement for lack of trying. Most of us want to feel motivated and seek meaning from our jobs.”

Amrit Sandhar, founder and CEO of The Engagement Coach, also attributes the UK’s low engagement levels to its distant industrial past. 

“Britain was at the forefront of the industrial revolution, which brought about lasting change in the way we work,” he says. “While working hours and conditions have improved since then, it seems that our mentality may not have.”

Sandhar argues that an “ingrained hierarchy” and an entrenched social class system have perpetuated a situation in which the management and the rank and file have clear differences in their expectations

“Until employees feel that they belong, have the same opportunities and believe everyone’s working to further a common cause, we’re unlikely to see any groundbreaking improvements in employee engagement,” he predicts. “What’s heartbreaking to me is that all of this is achievable.”

What employers can do to improve engagement

Stubbornly high levels of disengagement continue to exert a negative effect on UK plc’s performance, including productivity, profitability and talent retention. This means that, as long as they can get their engagement plans right, organisations have a “huge opportunity” to unleash their full potential, according to Sawyer. 

Companies should reposition managers as coaches, rather than bosses

Line managers play a vital role in this area: about 70% of the variance in world workplace engagement is directly attributable to managers, according to Gallup’s research. This means that engagement levels can vary dramatically within the same organisation, depending on whom people are reporting to. 

“We know that engagement is a local phenomenon, which changes team by team and manager by manager,” Sawyer says. “This isn’t something that you can take a top-down approach to.”

Companies should therefore do more to equip managers to meet the psychological needs of their team members, she argues. Setting clear expectations, talking regularly and connecting people’s work to their firm’s wider goals are all important for improving engagement. 

“Businesses should encourage managers to move away from the performance reviews that happen once a year,” Sawyer adds. “They should instead hold ongoing conversations that reposition managers as coaches, rather than bosses.”