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Instill a sense of purpose

I came across a WSJ article this week titled Why Is Everyone So Unhappy at Work Right Now? The article mentioned the well-documented tension between the flexibility and independence enjoyed by those who work-from-home and the discontent felt by workers who have been forced to return to the office.

Since the start of the pandemic, employers have increased spending on payroll and employee benefits such as mental health, childcare, and well-being bonuses. Even so, that investment has not translated into happier employees. An Alight survey of 2,000 U.S. employees this year noted that 34% of respondents said they often dread starting their workday—an 11-percentage-point rise since 2020. And a BambooHR analysis of data from more than 57,000 workers shows job-satisfaction scores have fallen to their lowest point since early 2020, after a 10% drop this year alone.

The article went on to list some of the contributing causes of worker discontent such as shifting expectations as return-to-office mandates go into effect, disenchantment with job changes during the Great Resignation, and the increase in geographic distance between bosses and staff, which has weakened ties among co-workers and heightened conflict.

There are numerous variables in play to balance employers’ aspiration for a productive an engaged workforce with employees’ desire for professional fulfillment, belonging, and contribution. Some of these factors are extrinsic (e.g., wages, benefits, and other fringes) and others are intrinsic (e.g., having a sense of purpose, doing work that matters, and being able to influence work outcomes). While the extrinsic variables can often be authorized with a stroke of the pen, the intrinsic ones call for more intention and creativity.

Immediate supervisors have an opportunity to shape employees’ perception of work by addressing their intrinsic needs. A worker quoted in the article resigned claiming that she “no longer felt a sense of purpose” from her job role. Her supervisor may have missed opportunities to articulate the higher purpose of the job role, reveal that purpose, and connect her daily work activities to that purpose. Doing so would demonstrate a causal link between the employee’s job duties and the higher purpose of her job role. Further, when these efforts are tracked, measured, and correlated with key performance indicators (KPIs), she can see the impact her contributions have had on results.

Clearly, job-satisfaction and engagement levels are affected by a variety of levers, many of which—including stroke-of-the-pen authorizations—are beyond the control of the employee’s immediate supervisor. But nothing is stopping them from instilling a sense of purpose. They simply need to internalize then share the organization’s guiding statement and core values, link those to the employee’s real world of work, demonstrate the relationship between effort and results, and leverage these conversations to inspire greater employee engagement.

Illustration by Aaron McKissen

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