Meaning and purpose in the workplace

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‘Meaning & purpose’ is the most influential domain of wellbeing.

Having led a series of wellbeing workshops this year, I’ve learnt that the third domain of the ‘seven step framework’ is often the most challenging to both articulate and be received by the audience. 

‘Meaning’ and ‘purpose’ are concepts that mean different things to different people. For some considering their life’s value can be confusing; whether we adopt a scientific approach or a spiritual view point, asking ourselves ‘What is my life all about?’ can be an overwhelming. And if we turn to Google for assistance we’re met with over 700 million results, which simply provokes more despondency and debate. For others however, embracing these ideas of existence opens up exciting potential, with quests for significance becoming a primary pursuit in their daily life.

So, as I’m sure you can imagine, when opening up a public discussion on the topic, I am met with a combination of bright, energetic eyes and fearful faces. The best approach at this stage is to clarify the facts, to both encourage and appease the emotions in the room. 

Through our ‘wellbeing at work’ research, Yoke consultancy has identified ‘Meaning and Purpose’ as the fourth (out of seven) highest scoring aspect of employee wellbeing, with average scores aligning to national averages (Office of National Statistics) regardless of industry. What this means is that employees feel that their sense of direction in life is markedly better than their physical, financial and community-led health; however it also means it is worse than their mental & emotional health, quality of relationships and sense of competency and action.

In isolation this is often difficult to make sense of. However if we dig a little deeper we can see that ‘meaning & purpose’ is the most influential domain of wellbeing. Unlike the other aspects, it is the only element of our life that has the ability to positively influence, directly and indirectly, all other parts of wellbeing. To articulate this from an analytical standpoint, this means statistically high R-coefficient or relationships, regardless of gender, disability or ethnicity.

This correlation is powerful and often something organisations miss. As an HR manager you may want to improve physical health and stress levels at work, so you decide to roll out standardised gym membership packages and guidelines on mental health. However you notice no significant change. Using your knowledge of ‘meaning & purpose’ you may instead decide to run workshops on value creation or self awareness, that instead promote skills to help with employee’s personal journeys. From experience these empower individuals to reflect broadly on their priorities and indirectly will promote better physical and mental health. In addition our insight on senior management revealed that 70% of thriving leaders had a strong sense of ‘meaning & purpose,’ exemplified through clear family values, personal ethics, or strong spiritual compasses.

Our research has also been substantiated by interview studies at University College London (UCL). Their work focused on the ageing demographic and measured the wellbeing of 9,050 people, with an average age of 65, over an eight year period. UCL found that individuals with a higher degree of meaning and purpose not only increased their sense of life fulfilment but also lived for longer; knowing your goal cultivates a survival mentality that positive impacts wellbeing.

Where do we start?

So now we know having meaning in life is good for us, the question arises ‘where do we start to find it?’ Or if we think we know what it is ‘how do we stay focused on it’ and ‘when should we prioritise it’?

If we start first with the time dynamic, by turning to Carl Jung’s work on archetypes, he describes four stages of life: 

  • In adolescence we embark on the athlete stage, led by our looks and bodily importance; 
  • Our twenties are an exploration of our warrior stage, as we conquer the world and do our best; 
  • Our mid-life is a statement stage as we reflect on our journey to date and consider ways to make a difference; 
  • Finally our spiritual stage, the era of maturity and wisdom when we realise we are more than our body and begin to step out of our minds and towards a higher purpose

Although developed in the 1920’s it helps us see the journey of purpose through our lives and manage our own expectations of how this evolves. It’s interesting to note however that with the new era of social entrepreneurship and purpose-driven business, we’re considering our spiritual stage early than ever before. Knowing our work has a ‘higher purpose’ is increasingly important in our vocational decisions.

As for what meaningful work is, Adam Lepzeig’s TED talk ‘How to know your life purpose in five minutes, demonstrates how the most fulfilled people exemplify five traits:

  1.  They know who they are
  2.  They understand what they want and are doing
  3. They know who they do it for
  4. They know what these people need
  5. They know what they get out of it

By carefully considering these questions you begin to create your own picture of meaning and purpose. It may reveal that you feel on track; potentially through the type of work you do, or as Robin Sharma reveals (The Leader Who Had No Title) through the way you do it. He challenges that on one level we can frame any job as purposeful if we chose to carry it out in a meaningful way. Cultivating skills in mindfulness at work is a powerful route to achieving clarity of direction, regardless of the title you’ve adopted. 

So if you’re an employee or employer, understanding your personal and dynamic definition of meaning and purpose is fundamental to achieving wellbeing in life. So please take the time to help yourself and others connect with it!

About Rachel Arkle

Rachel Arkle is Director of Yoke Consultancy, a leading wellbeing analytics company based in London and Bristol. As an expert in the wellbeing field, Rachel works with UK companies to help them understand and improve organisational wellbeing, in order to drive workforce and cultural effectiveness.

Rachel has worked with a range of companies from global consultancies to social enterprises in the UK and the US, and with over ten years' management experience, she ensures that her insight always adds value to a business's bottom line. She is completing a pioneering Wellbeing Masters Programme at Bath University, to deepen her expertise in organisational wellbeing.

Contact email: [email protected]

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