Almost one in three UK employees are self-confessed workplace coasters, according to new research from business consultancy Barnett Waddingham.
In interviews with 3,000 workers, the firm found that the most compelling reason why people are coasting is unhappiness at work, rather than any lack of ambition. Indeed, the interviews revealed that coasters are divided into two categories: those who make the conscious choice to coast and those for whom something is not working with either the employer or job.
While slightly more than three fifths (62%) of the coasters said they were content with their lives in general, only around a third (36%) said they were actively happy at work – hinting that a broad base of workers harbour misgivings about their jobs. One major factor behind that unhappiness, the research found, is that employees lack a sense of purpose: less than half (47%) of those who coast think that their jobs add value and meaning to their lives – yet among those who are excelling, that figure rises to 89%.
Meanwhile, only around two fifths of coasters (39%) believe that their employers make the best use of their skills – compared to 83% of those excelling.
Barnett Waddingham workplace wellbeing consultant Laura Matthews said: “Mental health is beginning to get some of the attention it deserves in workplaces and thankfully, more employers are now looking out for the signs of issues such as stress and anxiety. This is great progress. But as part of the same conversation, employers should be thinking more broadly about employee happiness and the positive impact this can have on all areas of the business – from productivity and innovation to profitability and corporate reputation.”
She added: “A third of our workforce is coasting at the moment, applying just enough effort to get by and go home at the end of the day. Our research shows that these are not lazy or unambitious people, but often those lacking purpose or confidence in their ability to add value. Mobilising this group to start excelling at work is worth a huge amount to UK companies.”
What sorts of approaches should leaders take to mobilise the coasting segment of their workforces?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “In 1997, prominent business psychologist Beverley Stone published a book called Confronting Company Politics,  which pointed out that staff bases are regularly split along attitudinal lines into thirds. So, we have the third with the desired values and attitudes, the third who want to adapt and change and the third who don’t want to change at all. In my view, leaders must recognise the persistence of this problem, and the factors that contribute to it.”
She explains: “In highly regulated industries, staff often suffer from a lack of autonomy caused by the requirement to be compliant – and by how that requirement is interpreted in workplace rulebooks and protocols. Another important factor is the uncertainty of the jobs market: workers can see that, thanks to declining corporate lifespans, there aren’t even organisations for life anymore – let alone jobs for life – so people feel that their horizons are narrowing. There is also the problem that parcelling out meaning among staff, so that everyone has some degree of autonomy, can be a very difficult process to manage.
“So,” Cooper asks, “how do you put meaning into people’s work? Well, there’s nothing that raises people’s games like other people doing well. And while we can never put a cap on what we expect from people, what we can do is set a minimum standard below which people should not go. That standard, of course, can still be rather high. Visibility of what one is contributing is extremely important – not just for the employee concerned, but for the relevant manager who is trying to highlight what’s so critical about that role, and how the organisation may be lacking without it.”
She adds: “People must think very carefully about the point of each role within their organisations. That doesn’t just go for the workers who are carrying out the roles, but for the managers who are designing the jobs and the HR heads who are recruiting to fill them. Has the role you are hiring for been established simply to grow your empire as a manager? Or was it genuinely designed to add value to the customer experience? Leaders must recognise that coasting has been a cause for concern for many years – so every organisation would benefit from a thorough, forensic audit of what its jobs are contributing.”
For further thoughts on managing performance, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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