Brits Lead The Charge—In Deprioritising Work

A new global survey found the UK public least likely to emphasise the importance of work. Why firms have a mounting engagement issue.

For many older British workers, “keep calm and carry on” was an enduring motto. The slogan, made famous by the UK government during World War II, was meant to boost morale during difficult times. But for British employees today, has the phrase run its course? 

It’s a distinct possibility. In a somewhat surprising finding, a new UK in the World Values Survey from the Policy Institute at King's College London shows only 73% of Britons claiming that work is “very or rather important in their life”—the lowest figure among 24 nations. What’s more, between 1981 and 2022, the portion of Brits who said it would be good if less importance were placed on work climbed from 26% to 43%.

Experts say a period of soul-searching during the pandemic, combined with the current cost-of-living crisis, has led to this dip in engagement. “People are opening up—they’re less ‘stiff upper lip and just get on with it,’” says Neelam Chohan, an associate client partner in Korn Ferry’s ESG and DE&I practice.

To be sure, with UK wages recently rising ahead of inflation, some of the cost-of-living pressure has eased. However, employees’ disillusionment with work is still cause for concern among productivity-focused leaders—British output per worker remained flat in Q2 this year compared with the same quarter last year.

Experts say leaders must restore a sense of reliability within their organisations to combat the growing frustration with British institutions, from national health care to schools to airports—the so-called “broken Britain” phenomenon. “Broken Britain has created a load of uncertainty for people, and work used to be a place of security,” says Dave Roycroft, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Advisory practice. “That security maybe isn't quite as powerful as it once was.”

Experts say leaders need to create a better sense of purpose for workers. Though that’s no easy task, one survey found that seven in ten employees say they derive their sense of purpose from work: when the work feels meaningful, their performance improves. This group is half as likely to hunt for a new job. “It's almost become like work is seen as you’re working for ‘the man’, so you lose,” says Emma Cornwall, a Korn Ferry associate client partner and leadership coach.

Major firms demanding that workers return to the office have only heightened schisms. UK employees are pushing in the opposite direction, with almost eight in ten saying they would favour a four-day work week, according to one survey. The return-to-office debate also doesn’t account for a growing chasm between so-called knowledge workers and workers in fields like manufacturing and services industries, for whom working from home isn’t even an option. “There’s probably some resentment toward those who can have greater flexibility,” says Mark Lancelott, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and sustainability expert.

A goal for leaders, according to Roycroft, might be to create a working environment that ultimately gives employees some of their time back and creates space for them to do more of the things that make them feel balanced and fulfilled—be it entrepreneurial pursuits, caring for loved ones, or something else. “That can be a powerful proposition,” he says.


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