On average, people spend 90,000 hours on the job over the course of their lives. So it’s no wonder that 9 in 10 workers would take a pay cut if it meant having the opportunity to participate in more purposeful work. But what is “purpose,” and do we really have to have it?
The most basic definition of purpose is the “why” question—why someone is working on a task, why a task matters to a job, why a job matters to an organization. The outcome is feeling as though the task, the job, the organization is meaningful. “It’s just built into our DNA,” says Jacinta Jimenez, a psychologist and the head of coaching at leadership development platform BetterUp. “As human beings, we’re wired to connect, and part of purpose is serving others or serving the greater good, something outside of us that allows us to feel more connected.”
“We have an inherent desire to be part of something that’s bigger than ourselves,” adds Elizabeth Lotardo, a vice president at leadership development consulting firm McLeod & More. “When you can see the impact that you have on another person, another community, on the world, that carries a lot of weight.”
Having a sense of purpose at work can make us feel as though what we do matters, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The sense of meaning that workers derive from purposeful work translates into elevated levels of engagement. At a time when just 34% of employees say they’re engaged at work and lack of engagement costs U.S. companies an estimated $500 billion annually, purpose would appear to be a business imperative. “Organizations are seeing the economic benefits and people are seeing the personal benefits,” Lotardo says. “Collectively, the world is moving toward a sense of purpose.”
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Workers who feel that what they do matters are also likely to be more resilient than their colleagues. Meaning can be a strong motivator, one that can help an individual overcome obstacles. “Everyone in every company is going to encounter failures and challenges, and purpose helps keep you grounded in the sense of gratitude and meaning in a way that financial metrics or quarterly targets just don’t,” Lotardo says.
Art Brief, an organizational psychologist and presidential professor emeritus at the University of Utah, has spent his career studying the moral dimensions of organizational life. “If you realize meaning in your work, you tend to be more satisfied in your life,” he says. But Brief isn’t blind to the realities of the workforce, admitting that most people don’t hold jobs that bring them purpose, at least not all the time. “When people work a second or third job, I don’t think they’re there to find a higher meaning, they’re there to find money,” he says. Even so, that doesn’t mean that those individuals can’t find fulfillment in at least one aspect of their work.
Research by Amy Wrzesniewski, professor of management at Yale University, asserts that individuals can craft their current jobs into the ones they want through a process called “job crafting.” According to the study, job crafting is when employees change “cognitive, task and/or relational boundaries to shape interactions and relationships with others at work.” Job crafting allows workers to revise what their work means to them and can serve as a path to purpose.
One example of this can be found in the professors’ study. Wrzesniewski interviewed the cleaning staff at a hospital and learned that not all of these staffers viewed their work in the same way. Some said the work was highly skilled, while others said it was the exact opposite. When asked for their job titles, some of the members gave their official titles, while others offered unofficial ones such as “healer.” The cleaners had unwittingly crafted their perceptions of their positions, proving that a shift in perspective can make any job purposeful.
The way that people perceive their work can be fluid, but so too is their sense of purpose. In fact, it’s not unlikely that what someone finds purposeful today won’t be entirely different a year down the road—and that’s all right. “When you’re in your 20s, what drives you and gives you purpose may be very different than when you’re in your 40s and 50s,” Jimenez says.
But the reasons that purposeful work is important will always be the same, she says. “When you create value for your organization and you contribute, your work is going to have more purpose.”