Make Work a Purpose, Not Just a Place

When Amy Wrzesniewski studied workers on the cleaning staff in a hospital system, she was amazed by how differently people viewed the same job. Some workers saw their job as a paycheck—a way to put food on the table and cover expenses. Others, meanwhile, considered their work to be a true calling.

When Wrzesniewski and her colleagues dug deeper, they found that these differences were not the result of what shift someone worked, the unit they worked on, or how long they had been on the job. Instead, the difference lay in whether or not a worker had strayed from their formal job description and become involved meaningful interactions and relationships with patients and visitors. Those who had done this found greater meaning in their work. As one of the workers explained to Wrzesniewski, “I do everything I can to promote the healing of patients. Part of that is about creating clean and sterile spaces in which they can recover, but it also extends to anything else I can possibly do to facilitate healing.” When these workers identified with being a part of the overall care team, it completely transformed their work and identity.

The work you do each day is how you make a difference in the world. You probably spend the majority of your time doing something that is considered a job, occupation, or calling. It is essential to make this time count. If you can find the right work, you can create meaning every day, instead of trying to squeeze the most important things in around the edges.

Work should be more than a necessary means to an end. Yet one dictionary lists “work” as synonymous with “drudgery” and “servitude.” When I ask people about their career expectations, one of the most frequent replies I hear is, “You don’t live to work; you work to live.” The assumption built into this belief is that people work primarily for a paycheck in a job devoid of meaning.

While defining work as little more than a monetary transaction may have rung true a century ago, it is at best an incomplete description of what employees are looking for today. This type of transactional relationship is also directly at odds with what organizations require from employees in a modern economy. The last thing businesses need is employees who show up to punch a time clock and who give only a fraction of their energy and effort to the organization’s mission.

The fundamental relationship between an employee and an organization is finally starting to change. When I was young, most adults I observed in the workplace were working hard primarily for the paycheck, trying to move as quickly as possible to the next step on a ladder or working to the point of exhaustion so they could retire early. These efforts were usually rooted in good intentions or a strong work ethic. However, this dynamic is neither sustainable for individuals nor optimal for productivity.

Work for More Than a Living

The concept of bring people together in groups, tribes or organizations is based on the fundamental premise that human beings can do more collectively than they can in isolation. Hundreds of years ago, people banded together for the sake of sharing food and shelter and keeping their family safe. The basic assumption was that the association gained by joining a group would benefit individuals and their loved ones. As a species, humans are better off together than they are apart. Simple enough.

This is why I was taken aback by research Gallup conducted on this topic. When workers across the United States were asked whether their lives were better off because of the organization they worked for, a mere 12 percent claimed that their lives were significantly better. The vast majority of employees felt their company was a detriment to their overall health and well-being.

How did this relationship between individuals and organizations go so wrong? One catalyst for this change was the Industrial Revolution, when people almost literally became cogs in big machines and assembly lines. The premise was that an employee would work at a routine task for a fixed number of hours in exchange for a set amount of hourly pay. While this led to a great deal of automation, innovation, and productivity growth, it also resulted in unintended side effects that linger today.

These transactional relationships made it easy for companies to work someone to the point of burnout, knowing they could hire the next person in line. Everything from organizational hierarchies in compensation structures sent a simple message: You are replaceable. At almost every turn, classic economies ruled. No one was even asking whether people’s lives were better because they were part of a particular organization.

When I entered the workforce in the 1990s, the general expectation was not much different. A company offered you a job performing a specific task. If you completed that task, you earned a wage. Some jobs also provided benefits like health insurance, retirement funds, or other incentives to retain employees. A few companies even asked employees if they were satisfied with their jobs. However, these satisfaction levels have gotten progressively worse over the past 25 years.

Go Beyond Engagement

Near the start of the 21st century, some companies began asking if their employees were emotionally engaged (not just satisfied) with the work they were doing each day. These inquiries created a major shift; managers and leaders were finally paying attention to whether people were not just showing up but also giving all of their “discretionary effort” to the organization.

Employers are now quite savvy about whether you are engaged or disengaged while you are on the job. They know what the organization is getting out of you. However, in most cases, you do not know how, or even if, your life is improving because you are part of that organization.

This relationship needs to change for the foundational compact between individuals and organizations to succeed. The reality is: What’s good for an employee is in the organization’s best interest as well. A Towers Watson analysis of 50 global companies found that organization with low scores on traditional engagement measures averaged a 10 percent operating margin. This went up to 14 percent among companies with high employee engagement scores. In organizations with “sustainable engagement,” meaning the organization also improved employees’ personal well-being, the average operating margin was greater than 27 percent.

This analysis suggests that your personal well-being is just as important as how engaged you are in your job even if you look at things only from an employer’s financial perspective. If you show up for work fully charged, it increases your engagement and leads to better interactions with your colleagues and customers. This is good for your peers, the people you serve, and the long-term interests of the organization.

A healthy relationship between an employee and an organization starts with a shared mission, meaning, or purpose. A 2013 study more than 12,000 workers worldwide found that employees who derive meaning and understand the importance of their work are more than three times as likely to stay with an organization. Author Tim Schwartz described how this one element has “the highest single impact of any variable” in a study that looked at many elements of a great workplace. Meaningful work was also associated with 1.7 times higher levels of overall job satisfaction.

The future of work lies in redefining it as doing something that makes a difference each day. Work is a purpose, not a place. Work is about productively applying your talent. Work is about making your life, and the lives of other people, stronger as a product of your efforts. But getting to this point starts by moving beyond the pull of a paycheck.


Tom Rath, a senior scientist and advisor to Gallup, Inc., is also a bestselling author and popular speaker. His books on leadership and well-being have sold more than six million copies. Among them are How Full Is Your Bucket?, StrengthsFinder 2.0, Eat Move Sleep, and Are You Fully Charged?

Excerpt from Are You Fully Charged? The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life by Tom Rath (Silicon Guild, 2015, $12.89). Reprinted with permission from Missionday LLC, Arlington, VA 22201.

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