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Jeremy Carter


Director of Sales, EMEA - Bridge, Instructure

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Employee engagement: why the UK has an employee apathy problem and how this can be solved


When it comes to the war for talent, UK businesses are falling behind because of employee apathy. Here’s how companies can empower line managers to help solve this problem.

As part of a project to see how Britain’s employers are approaching employee development, Bridge decided to explore whether UK employees understood the contribution they make to the organisation they work for. We were keen to understand if they have a perception of the value they bring to the company and whether they had a clear idea of how their careers could progress.

A recent study by The Worldcom Group highlighted that a ‘battle for talent’ is underway in the UK. The number of UK leaders who said they will give employees the most attention out of all audiences has increased by 108% since 2017.

Despite this, our findings have revealed worrying levels of employee apathy across the UK – mostly due to the fact that line managers are not handling performance reviews and employee engagement in line with their needs.

The five core needs of employees

To understand where they are going wrong, we first need to appreciate why employees think the way that they do. Neuroscientists have identified the five deep-seated ways our brains work.

These five needs (SCARF) are:

  • Status: meaning our relative importance to others
  • Certainty: our ability to predict what will happen in the future
  • Autonomy: our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: our sense of security with others
  • Fairness: our perception of fair exchanges between people

Unfortunately, the data shows that UK employees are being failed in almost all areas:

  • More than half said they are left guessing when it comes to the contribution they make to their employer (relatedness, autonomy and certainty).
  • 41% of respondents said their options for career progression weren’t communicated to them clearly (certainty).
  • Only one in 12 employees (8%) have regular meetings with their manager (relatedness).
  • 29% of staff don’t think their appraisals are fair (fairness).
  • 11.8 million workers feel their skills are not properly utilised (fairness and status).

The failure of line managers to deliver effective employee development may explain why business leaders have low confidence in their ability to improve productivity by energising and engaging their employees.

The UK has the second lowest confidence score of all the countries surveyed – much lower than the global average and almost half the US score.

Almost a third of employees have left because of the behaviour of their line managers.  

While most leaders understand the importance of engagement, three quarters of those surveyed said that most employees in their organisation are not highly engaged, according to a recent study from Harvard Business Review entitled The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance.

While business leaders do seem to understand the link between employee engagement and performance and the impact it can have on productivity, motivation, potential staff turnover and costs, many just don’t know what to do about it.

What is causing employee apathy in the UK?

Employee responses suggest that many organisations are failing to give enough attention to the essential role of line management.

The statistics point to a culture of ‘managing by default’, in many organisations, with nearly half of all UK line managers ill prepared for the role and lacking the right skills for effective management.

Many employees who responded said their managers need more training and to be given time to operate as a manager, rather than having those responsibilities ‘bolted on’ to their existing role.

Before any change can occur, companies need to reframe how they think about the role of the line manager. 

The net result is that almost a third of employees have left because of the behaviour of their line managers.  

Not only is this employee churn costing businesses billions, but the reasons behind it create an environment that is not conducive to effective performance and healthy workplaces.

“This research shows that line management is pivotal to success,” said Ruth Dance, managing director of the Employee Engagement Alliances. “Do it right and you will have an engaged and energised workforce. Get it wrong and you will hurt your business and hurt your people too.”

What can be done?

Let’s return to the SCARF model for a moment. In order to meet employees’ needs, UK organisations need to implement more effective development processes in which line managers play a pivotal role. By giving line managers the right support, businesses can solve the issue of employee apathy.

Here are a few suggestions as to how this can be achieved.

  1. Assign strategic importance to the role of line manager

    Before any change can occur, companies need to reframe how they think about the role of the line manager. This will mean ensuring that they are allowed the time to fulfill their responsibilities as a line manager, and especially that they have time to spend checking in regularly with their team.

  2. Build frequency of contact and coaching into the employee development process

    Ensure line managers have regular check-ins with employees. These check-ins should be focused on ensuring that employees still feel on track to achieve their objectives, providing feedback on what has been learned so far and how it has impacted performance, and building confidence by providing coaching for areas of need.

  3. Connect employee development, learning to create momentum for the business and help people to grow their confidence, skill and sense of fulfillment

    Ensure personal development plans connect directly to what the company is trying to achieve.

    Use this connected thinking to create a ‘learning loop’ by connecting how you review performance, identify learning needs, deliver learning and coaching, practice those skills and then review again.

    This connected approach will remove one of the biggest challenges for businesses – the way talent management is disconnected from performance improvement and from learning.

  4. Provide line managers with the tools to fulfill their role

    Being a line manager is a complex role with many demands. It therefore makes sense to automate where possible to improve effectiveness, aid tracking and deliver insight.

    There are many tools on the market that could help with this, but to deliver maximum benefit it makes sense to choose a platform that supports a learning loop by having an integrated approach to all the facets of line management.

  5. Offer clear explanations of how each role in the company contributes to achieving the company’s goals

    This will enable the line manager to explain what is expected of each individual.

    Going back to the SCARF model, doing this will fulfill the status, certainty and autonomy needs, by providing the employee with clarity about where they fit in the organisation and what they are expected to deliver, so that they can make informed decisions about how best to contribute each day.

Finally, it’s important for organisations to realise that this isn’t a one-off fix – solving employee apathy and maintaining that position requires constant attention and effort and is something that should be built into their ongoing plans.

Interested to learn more about this topic? Read Employee engagement: the new rules for 21st century teams

Author Profile Picture
Jeremy Carter

Director of Sales, EMEA - Bridge, Instructure

Read more from Jeremy Carter

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