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58% of employees ‘not bothered’ about work – should we be alarmed?

Lucie Zernerova

27 July 2012

According to the latest CIPD Employee Outlook survey, 58% of UK employees are simply ‘not bothered’ about their work.  But should this be a cause for concern? The answer depends on what perspective we take on the increasingly popular issue of engagement. It could even be that this figure offers a source of hope for employers who are increasingly having to do more with fewer resources. 

Firstly, the picture may not be quite as bad as this figure, taken alone, would suggest. To provide a little context,  the survey shows that while 58% of employees may be neither engaged nor disengaged, 39% of employees reported positive engagement with their work and this number has been rising steadily over the last three quarters (from 36% in winter 2011/12). Only 3% of respondents indicated they were disengaged at work, and nearly two thirds of these were actively looking for a new job with a different organisation. 

To look at the issue from a historical perspective, we may actually be enjoying the highest levels of engagement in centuries. Certainly the variety of jobs available today has the potential to cater for a diverse range of individual interests, goals and career paths. And the fact that employers care about employee engagement to the extent that they routinely take active steps to measure it and invest in engagement strategies is a huge step forward from the quest for economic efficiency informed by Taylorism and Fordism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today’s economic climate certainly poses a stark challenge and some organisations may be tempted to sacrifice employee engagement initiatives in favour of cost-cutting exercises and economic expediency. However, we should view engagement as a central tool for driving the UK economy out of the hardship that’s been lingering now for rather too long.

With the rise of the knowledge-based economy, employers are increasingly dependent on their human capital to thrive – or, at the bare minimum - survive. In this increasingly competitive market, battered by the economic crisis, employers in both public and private sectors are being pushed to do more with less, and they know that face-time (mere presence of employees at work) and swearing by the job-description will not be enough. Hence engaging the 58% of employees who are currently ‘not bothered’ about their work may hold huge potential to unlocking a more prosperous future. There is already a large body of research into employee engagement and its link to improved productivity. Moreover, there is a wealth of resources providing recommendations on how to build an engaged workforce, such as the findings of the Good Work Commission, led by The Work Foundation. And a large number of consultancies building on this research are already waiting to step in with their engagement tools and offerings. 

But lets not be complacent about this. Actively engaging employees requires more than just undertaking an employee attitude survey, disseminating skilfully drafted messages about the company’s brand and mission, or mid-management training. Actively engaging employees needs to go beyond this. For starters, it may involve re-thinking the nature of the jobs provided within organisations, as well as a real focus on employee development and tailoring it to individual needs; it may even be necessary to address some prickly organisational issues to which senior leaders have often turned a blind eye (such as unethical behaviours or corrosive cultures).  

So should we be alarmed? Perhaps quite the opposite: we may prefer to see this as an opportunity.  



Comments in Chronological Order (Total 2 Comments)

Jason Velveeta

27 Jul 2012 1:32PM

The survey looks like it measures whether or not they are engaged with their employer, rather than whether they are engaged with their work / profession. Many professionals are far more engaged with their profession that they are with their specific employer.

I also find it interesting that being an 'engaged' employee means working more than you are contracted to do. That used to be called 'employee exploitation'. Is employee engagement therefore a euphemism for extracting more surplus value out of workers under the auspices of being a responsible and ethical employer?

Lucie Zernerova

30 Jul 2012 12:26PM

Great comments. Thank you, Jason!

Would it not be great to be able to engage with your work / profession through the work you do at work with your specific employer (rather than despite them)? We have noted in our own research that the locus of engagement may change throughout the employment - the Work Foundation's 'Understanding of the Deal' report ( )explicitly outlines the different loci of engagement that may be salient for different individuals at different times or career stages. The CIPD engagement index comprises seven distinct groups of variables at different levels.

Inspiring employee engagement is closer to nurturing the employees’ passion for the job rather than exploitation. As CIPD notes engagement cannot be required as part of the employment contract, it is something that employees can offer when they see their job as worthwhile and inspiring. Also, the Work Foundation has done research on the issue of presenteeism – and while we would suggest that going 'above and beyond' in terms of time and effort put in can be seen as one indicator of engagement among others - presenteeism can carry its own problems (see for example the Work Foundation's report looking specifically at the sickness presence