Do You Have Purpose in Your Work?

Do You Have Purpose in Your Work?

By Julie Norwell

One of the more surprising developments to emerge out of the pandemic was a mass quitting of jobs this past spring. The “Great Resignation,as it is being called, hit a historic peak in the U.S. in April and may just be at the beginning. The trend has taken hold in Europe, too, and a recent survey found that as many as 41% of workers globally are thinking of resigning from their jobs.

In hindsight, perhaps it’s not terribly surprising. The past year has challenged people on multiple levels and has forced them to make changes that they hadn’t planned or foreseen making.

The reasons for people leaving their jobs now are myriad. Burnout is certainly near the top of the list, and some point to pent-up resignation demand – a situation where people who would ordinarily have quit their jobs over the past year, instead, held on to them until the economy became less uncertain.

But there is something else, too. According to a recent report by management consulting firm, McKinsey, nearly two-thirds of US-based employees surveyed said that Covid-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. Nearly half of them said they are reevaluating the work they do as a result.

In Pursuit of Happiness and Meaning

Purpose has probably never been as important to job satisfaction as it is right now. Do what you love? That is so yesteryear. In the post-pandemic world, people want more than to love their job – they want to do something meaningful. Texas A&M Associate Professor of Management Anthony Klotz, who coined the term “Great Resignation,” theorizes that “the pandemic has made many realize their job does not contribute enough (or at all) to their pursuit for happiness and meaning, and they have decided to invest their energy elsewhere – in new jobs, new careers or in other aspects of their lives.”

Work consumes a huge portion of our time, so it’s natural that people in search of happiness and meaning in their lives would try to find it in their work. It’s by no means a new trend. The Society for Human Resource Management has tracked the importance of “meaningfulness of the job” in job satisfaction rankings for decades. (It also notes the growth of its importance. And a 2017 survey by BetterUp Labs, a San Francisco-based leadership development platform, found that nine out of ten workers would sacrifice 23% of their future earnings – an average of $21,000 per year – for work that is “always meaningful.”

What’s unusual now is that so many people are switching things up simultaneously. The phenomenon has everyone from management consulting firms to academics to the press discussing it and trying to understand it.

Management consulting firm Ernst & Young, for example, refers to a study finding that 89% of Americans believe that the pandemic “is an opportunity for large companies to hit ‘reset’ and focus on doing right by their workers, customers, communities and the environment.” The BBC’s Life Project “explores how people of all ages are reevaluating and redefining their ambitions, goals and milestones in the current economic climate” through various articles, many of which discuss the accelerating trend towards purpose-driven jobs and companies. And Andrew Seaman, an editor at LinkedIn News, recently began soliciting informed perspectives and advice from LinkedIn members about career pivots in a new LinkedIn thread called #TheBigShift.

Why Is Purpose Important?

Feeling a purpose in work has benefits on many levels. At the individual level, people who feel purpose in their work are happier, healthier, and more resilient in the face of change. They are also more productive than people who don’t feel a sense of purpose. They feel that they belong at their company and in their role.

There is also a benefit at the organizational level. Management consultants urge business leaders to cultivate a sense of purpose among their workforce. Why? Because when employees feel a sense of purpose in their work, they exhibit more productivity, stronger employee engagement, greater loyalty, and a higher likelihood of staying at the company.

Incidentally, the opposite is also true: Good talent will often find the door if employees don’t see that their contributions to the company’s goals matter or align with their own.

In the wake of the pandemic, McKinsey found that 89% of employees want purpose in their lives, and 70% of those surveyed said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. With statistics like that, employers are smart to take notice. Not all do, but many large companies use corporate social responsibility efforts as a way to attract and engage top talent.

If your company’s purpose and goals don’t align with your own, are unclear, or aren’t well communicated, it might be a good time to consider a change to something that you find more fulfilling.

Are You on Purpose?

So, do you have purpose in work? The answer may change depending on where you are in your life. Your purpose may well be to make a lot of money to provide for your family. That’s often true for people early in their careers. Perhaps you see your current job as a steppingstone towards a better job or launching your own business, and your purpose is to gain necessary experience to lay the groundwork. Or maybe your purpose is to help advance a larger cause, like climate change, civil rights, or curing cancer.

Whatever your purpose is, it should foster intention and motivation in your work. You should have a sense that you are contributing to a larger, meaningful goal – one that energizes and inspires you in the work you do in pursuit of it. In this case, you are ‘on purpose,’ (sort of like being ‘on brand’.

The ideal is when your purpose aligns with that of your company, even if the day-to-day work is routine. That was true for Bibi, a client of The Barrett Group, who was chief administrative officer for a large university. After a 24-year career, she “was eager to do something I really care about, which is working with trees.” Although she had little hope she’d actually find a role working with trees given her background, she landed a new job as an executive for a non-profit organization that helps to protect rainforests. The position gave Bibi newfound zeal in her work because she is using her talents for a cause that is important to her.

If you don’t know what your purpose is, keeping a list of your day-to-day activities for a few weeks and identifying whether they make your feel energized or drained is a good start to figuring it out. You might also consider talking to an executive coach who is trained to help you tease this type of information out of people.


If you lack a sense of purpose in the work you do and changing jobs isn’t a great option for you, there is another option. You could dig deep within yourself to find inspiration and create meaning in the work that you already do. The old bricklayer parable offers an example of how the right mindset can alter your experience:

As the story goes, three bricklayers were all at work building a cathedral. They were all asked, “What are you doing?”

The first bricklayer responded, “I am laying bricks.”

The second bricklayer responded, “I am building a wall.”

The third bricklayer responded, “I am building a cathedral to God.”

Although they were all doing the same job, they had very different perspectives of their work and the way in which their contributed to a larger purpose. The third bricklayer clearly saw more meaning in his work, even though it was the same work as his fellow bricklayers. The difference? Mindset.

With this thinking in mind, Andrew Seaman started a second LinkedIn thread in addition to #TheBigShift. It is called #CreateMeaning, and he invites people to post advice on how to make their current role or workplace more meaningful or inspiring.

It’s not always easy to know what your purpose is, but neither is feeling that what you do doesn’t matter in any way that is important to you. If you’re not on purpose, perhaps it’s time for you to reevaluate your work, too, and be part of the Great Resignation.

Read next: Why Are So Many People Quitting Their Jobs Now?



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