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Why We Do What We Do: Finding A Sense of Purpose at Work

The average person spends 90,000 hours at work in their lifetime, yet a high percentage of employees – up to 70% – are either not engaged or, worse, are actively disengaged, according to research by Gallup and other organizations around the world.  

So, why do we do what we do? Or rather, why do we seek meaning in what we do? 

Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up quite beautifully: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 

Today, more than ever, people are searching for a sense of purpose and meaning in their work. When asked about their career priorities, 57% of younger Americanssaid that the most important factor was to do personally enjoyable and meaningful work. Attaining a sense of fulfilment is vital to them in order to be optimally engaged 

Employees thrive when they have a sense of purpose  

Purpose enhances our ability to make an impact on the work we do and to connect with other people across cultures and contexts. We’re energized and motivated when we feel we have a sense of purpose. According to Yale School of Management researcher Amy Wrzesniewski, people who consider their work to be a calling tend to be more satisfied than those who think of their work as “just” a job. Having a calling is not restricted to people in executive positions. For example, Wrzesniewski has interviewed hospital janitors who believed they had a calling – they saw their work as more than mere cleaning; it was about helping support patients’ healing.  

And speaking of janitors, here’s a wonderful story about President John F. Kennedy who was visiting NASA headquarters for the first time in 1961: while touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA.

“I’m helping put a man on the moon!”, he said. 

You see, he understood the big picture. He saw that he had a part in it, and he had purpose. 

Engaged employees feel like they’re part of a larger mission, are aware of the value of their work to the organization, and understand the impact they have on the work of others. Research in positive psychology indicates that people with a compelling purpose or meaning have higher energy, focus and motivation, as well as lower depression, anxiety and distractibility. Finding meaning in work also has benefits like boosting performance, helping people advance their careers, and reducing stress. 

Employees with a sense of purpose benefit companies 

When employees feel engaged, results have shown that organizations benefit from higher customer satisfaction levels, improved productivity, and greater profits. In fact, there’s an entire concept known as the Engagement-Profit Chain which, in a nutshell, means that engaged employees lead to… higher service, quality, and productivity, which leads to… higher customer satisfaction, which leads to… increased sales… which leads to… higher levels of profit, which leads to… higher shareholder returns. 

But what can employers do to help create a sense of purpose in the workplace in order to reap all of these rewards?  

  1. Provide employees with frequent validation: Employees need to know that what they do matters to the organization. Of workers who were recognized in the last six months, 93% agree their work has meaning and purpose, while only 72% of workers who were not recognized say the same is true, according to a Globoforce study. 
  2. Show employees their jobs are linked to a greater cause: Leaders should demonstrate how the work the employee does every day helps the organization achieve the greater “whole,” says Bill Donoghue, CEO of Skillsoft. “Every individual needs to feel a sense of ‘I matter,’ that showing up every day makes a difference,” he says. “They want to feel proud of the work their organizations do. Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America, concurs: “Connecting how your business succeeds with how it contributes to society is a critical way to help people find meaning every day. 
  3. Create a strong sense of community: One way to do this is by instilling an open communication policy, says Eric Mosley, CEO of Globoforce. “Managers are crossing the bridge from the old control-and-command style of leadership and are more like coaches and mentors,” he says. Frequent conversations with employees – both one-on-one and group discussions – are key to building a meaningful sense of community in the workplace. 
  4. Offer and encourage continuous learning87% of millennials and 69% of non-millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them in a job, according to Gallup. “It’s so critical for managers to make training and development resources continuously available to employees,” says Donoghue. “Everyone should become a lifelong learner to develop and grow new skills and competencies.” 


About the author

We are made up of marketers, sales representatives, administrators, product and project managers, developers, operational personnel and customer service agents all passionate about collaboration. Communication is at the heart of what we do, and we are continually in search of better, faster, more efficient and cutting-edge ways to connect people across geographic borders. We believe that progress emerges from people's desire to share and that everyone works better when they're having fun!

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