Find the purpose of work by creating purpose in your work

October 4, 2021 - 20 min read

woman stands in office in front of US flag holding book- - purpose of work

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What is the purpose of work?

Humans and their need to connect

Why do we need to work?

The importance of feeling useful

What they don’t tell you about finding your purpose

What you need from a job can change

How to create a sense of purpose at work

Need help finding your purpose of work?

If you’re reflecting on your life purpose, you’re not alone. 2 out of 3 employees in the US say the COVID-19 pandemic has caused them to reconsider their purpose.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising. Many of us feel we have a purpose in life, even if we’re not sure exactly what it is. The pandemic has inspired many people to reflect on what’s truly important to them. As a result, nearly half of US employees are considering changing jobs or careers

But finding your purpose in work is only easy for a lucky few. Most often, it is a process of discovery — it requires time. For most of us, it requires deep soul-searching and an understanding of what purpose is, why we need it, and how to find it. 

Let’s go over all three.

What is the purpose of work?

We spend the majority of our lives working. Many of us spend eight hours a day, five days a week dedicating our time to our job. This means that, on average, people work 90,000 hours over the course of their lifetime.

We spend more time on the job than with our families or doing things we love. So it’s unsurprising that most people aspire to more meaningful and satisfying work. After all, if you’re giving so much of your life and energy to something, it makes sense that you would want to enjoy it.

BetterUp carried out a survey on the importance of meaning and purpose at work. We wanted to discover why having a sense of purpose at work is so crucial to both employees and organizations. 

We found that employees are more satisfied with their jobs when they feel they are meaningful and they feel empowered. And higher levels of job satisfaction incentivize people to work longer hours and take fewer sick days. This results in productivity gains for the company that average $9,000 per employee per year.

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No doubt having a sense of purpose at work benefits both the employee and the organization. Employees who place value on meaningful work are more likely to be promoted and occupy leadership positions

And in case you’re still not convinced about how much value people place on the purpose of work, 9 out of 10 employees would be willing to accept a pay cut in exchange for a more meaningful job.

Not only that, but job satisfaction also boosts employee engagement. This is essential for all businesses at a time when just 20% of employees worldwide report high levels of engagement.

Humans and their need to connect 

But why are meaning and purpose so important to human beings? 

Researchers have shown that we are hard-wired to connect on a collective level because our ancestors depended on one another to survive. Throughout most of human history, rejection by the group was the equivalent of a death sentence. But just because today you can order delivery online rather than seeking others to help to bring down a mastodon for dinner doesn't mean you no longer need a tribe.

This intrinsic need to connect with something bigger than ourselves drives us to look for a sense of purpose or a way to contribute to the greater good. Serving people and making a difference makes us feel connected to others. 

This gives a sense of meaning and purpose to our lives in a way that material rewards can’t. The Japanese concept of Ikigai summarizes our drive for purpose and how we can connect to it.

The power of connection and contribution is so strong that it makes people more motivated and resilient to setbacks. Feeling connected to your work and having a sense of purpose can help you persevere even when other metrics indicate failure

This is why people we consider materially or financially successful often turn out to be deeply unhappy. In their pursuit of success, they may have neglected their intrinsic need to connect with others through purposeful work. It turns out that happiness leads to success, not the other way round.

Why do we need to work?

In the 20th century, economic recovery and stability were the two main goals of most employees and organizations. It was common for Baby Boomers to land secure, stable jobs and stay at them for their entire careers. These jobs may have been monotonous, but they provided for the family and ensured their future.

But each generation’s need to work is conditioned by the moment in history in which they live. Millennials now form the majority of the global workforce. With this generational shift, employee priorities have also changed. 

According to Crystal Kadakia, author of “The Millennial Myth,” the ongoing corporate instability that began with the Great Recession and has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted employees’ priorities

Millennials put purpose over paychecks. This makes meaningful work the secret sauce of employee engagement and retention.

Aligning work with an employee’s core beliefs, values, and passions can lead to higher levels of job satisfaction. This leads to an increased sense of fulfillment that extends to every area of a person’s life.

In fact, research shows that having a sense of personal purpose at work can improve employees’ personal lives. This phenomenon is known as work-to-life enrichment.

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The importance of feeling useful 

85% of executives and upper management feel connected to a sense of purpose in their work. This is compared to just 15% of frontline leaders and employees, according to McKinsey. 

This gap highlights the need for employers to take purpose at work more seriously. Their organization will benefit in many ways, four of which are outlined below.

1. Increases employee engagement

Research by CIO found that creating more meaning for employees in their work boosts:

  • Motivation by 55%
  • Loyalty by 42%
  • Pride by 32%

This leads to higher levels of employee engagement and productivity.

2. Boosts employee retention

Employees who feel their company’s purpose aligns with their personal purpose are more likely to be engaged and motivated. This makes them less likely to leave and increases employee retention. It also reduces the costs and lack of efficiency associated with high employee turnover.

3. It reduces absenteeism

Finding purpose at work can increase employee well-being through work-to-life enrichment. When employees feel connected to a greater purpose in their work, it impacts their mental fitness and well-being.

They are more energized and resilient to job-related stress and setbacks. This reduces absenteeism and its impact on organizational productivity.

4. It improves performance

The CIO study found that helping employees connect with a sense of purpose at work can increase productivity by 22%. This is because purpose-driven employees are willing to put in extra hours and create more revenue for the organization.

What they don’t tell you about finding your purpose 

Finding and connecting with a sense of personal purpose can be deeply rewarding, but it also has its pitfalls. Here are three things you should be aware of that could happen when you find your purpose.

1. It can burn you out

Discovering your purpose is an exciting experience. It gives you a motivational boost that can make you last longer than the Energizer bunny. But all that extra energy holds the potential of burnout, so be careful and make sure you pace yourself. 

You might feel you want to make up for lost time, but you should resist the urge to stay up all night working on your projects. Be the tortoise, not the hare, and schedule in plenty of time for rest and self-care.

2. You might lose people

Finding your purpose is part of your growth as a human being, and not everyone will understand your journey. 

One potential side effect of finding your purpose is that you outgrow old friends, jobs, and colleagues. 

Although this might be painful, it is often a natural result of personal growth. Resist the urge to hold onto things that no longer serve you. At the same time, allow yourself to grieve that which you’ve lost.

3. Working off-purpose can be painful

When you discover your purpose, you might find that it doesn’t align with your current profession. This is an uncomfortable position to be in. But you can use it as fuel to gradually implement changes, one day at a time, and work toward creating a more fulfilling life.

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What you need from a job can change

According to McKinsey, 70% of employees say their purpose is defined by their work. But goals and aspirations are not static, and they can change as time progresses. This means the things that give you a sense of purpose may also change over time.

In fact, the things you find meaningful in your 20s are likely to be different from your priorities in your 30s, 40s, or 50s.

For example, if you’re a photojournalist, adventure might be your priority in your 20s, and you spend a decade touring the globe telling stories that matter. In your 30s, you might decide to take a desk-based job that allows you to settle down and have a family. 

And in your 40s and 50s, you might aspire to upper management roles that allow you to influence the creative direction of the publication you work for.

How to create a sense of purpose at work 

Let’s take a look at how employees can create a sense of purpose at work and why helping employees find purpose is a crucial leadership behavior.

For employees: finding your purpose at work 

Employees can find a greater sense of purpose in their work by implementing the following steps.

  1. Get clear on your beliefs and values

Finding your purpose starts with identifying what really matters to you. Take some time to journal about your beliefs and values and look for ways to apply them to your work. This can help you look for employers who share your values.

  1. Develop your passions

It might not always be possible, or desirable, to find work that perfectly aligns with your passions. However, you may be able to find ways to integrate your passion into your work. Research by Deloitte suggests that the passion we have for work is unique and characterized by a desire to take on challenges and connect with others to learn faster how to make a significant impact.

Many people aren't even sure what they're passionate about. Many people discover their passion, or discover a new passion, through the process of immersing in their work. As you learn more about a domain or industry and get involved in specific problems and customers, it can pique your curiosity and ignite passion. 

For example, one study found that members of the cleaning staff in a hospital had diverse perceptions of the same job. When asked what they do, some simply stated their job title, while others gave unofficial descriptions such as “healer.”

  1. Shift your perspective

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change” — Dr. Wayne Dyer

You can find the meaning or purpose of any job when you change your way of looking at it. To find the purpose of your work, focus on the three elements of purpose:

  1. Feeling connected to something bigger than yourself
  2. Knowing your work matters
  3. Understanding how your work affects other people

Make a logical connection between the work you do and how it contributes to the greater good. 

For example, if you work in administration for a non-profit organization, you can reason that your work contributes to delivering assistance to those who need it, even if you’re not the one delivering that assistance directly.

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For leaders: helping your employees find purpose

As a leader, part of your job is helping your employees discover their purpose. Here are four steps you can take to do just that.

  1. Start with your organization’s purpose

79% of business leaders believe that purpose is essential for success in business. Yet only 34% of leadership decisions are guided by organizational purpose.

To define your organization’s purpose, start by identifying your core company values. Then link them to your overarching strategy, goals, and purpose.

  1. Help employees align with their work

Encourage employees to create their own purpose-driven headlines for their work. These should be more descriptive and dynamic than their job titles. The individual purpose of each employee should contribute to the purpose of the organization.

KPMG found that after trying this exercise, employees’ engagement levels and pride in their work skyrocketed.

  1. Ask for employee input

Create a work environment that encourages team members to regularly submit suggestions and initiatives that are in line with both the individual and organizational purpose. 

  1. Help people fulfill their purpose at work

According to McKinsey, 63% of employees expect their employers to provide opportunities to fulfill their purpose in their day-to-day work. 

Look for ways to help your employees live their personal purpose through their work. For example, you might want to assist them in creating a five-year plan that will guide them toward their purpose.

Need help finding your purpose of work?

Finding your purpose of work can lead to a more rewarding career. It also contributes to better physical and emotional well-being and higher levels of motivation.

But finding your purpose isn’t always straightforward, even when you follow the steps above. That’s why BetterUp’s expert career coaches specialize in helping you find your purpose and reach your goals. Get in touch today to discover how we can help you.

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Published October 4, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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