purpose at work person holding a journal with my mission written on the front

Finding Purpose at Work. What is it? And why is it important?

Are you looking for more meaning in your work but not sure how to get there?  We all need a sense of purpose in our lives. When we can’t find one, it can leave us flat and demotivated.  The pandemic has prompted many to reflect on what is important to us and how we want to live our lives.

I recently delivered a webinar for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I thought I would take this opportunity to share some of the ideas we discussed.

A sense of purpose

A sense of purpose is knowing that our work has meaning – that it helps someone else or makes the world a better place. When we understand the deeper purpose behind our work, we are likely to be more satisfied and more productive.

Taken to extremes, purpose can be a matter of life and death. As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning,

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

Purpose is something we do or something we create — not something we buy, inherit or achieve. Purpose could be any direction in which we’re heading with some degree of intention. It’s a far-reaching, steady goal. Purpose is something meaningful and self-transcending that, ideally, shows up in our lives every day.

It’s the picture on the lid of a jigsaw box

I read about a student named Luke who shared a metaphor that his father used to convey the importance of purpose: a jigsaw puzzle. Luke grew up doing puzzles with his family, including his brother. As the boys got older, their father would hide the box top and challenge his sons to finish the puzzle without it. Unsurprisingly, that was extremely difficult.

Purpose is like that picture on the cover of the puzzle box. We spend a lot of time staring at the pieces and trying to fit them this way or that, but it’s the picture on the cover of the box that guides us. This is our bigger picture, the meaning of our life, our purpose. To complete the puzzle, we need to reference that box top more often than we might expect.

Work is a big part of that jigsaw puzzle

During the day, can you envision where the piece you’re holding in your hand at the moment, or at any moment, fits into the bigger picture? In other words, does it really matter whether you do this thing you’re about to do? When you wake up in the morning, or on a Sunday night as you contemplate the workweek ahead, do you think it matters whether you show up for work? It should matter. The likelihood of it mattering greatly increases if you believe that what you do with your time at work makes sense, that it’s worth it.

It reminds us of the old fable of two bricklayers:

A man walked by two bricklayers. He asked the first man what he was doing. He stood up from the wall he was building and answered, “I’m laying bricks.”

The man took a few more steps and found the second bricklayer. He asked the same question: what are you doing? The second bricklayer picked up the next brick, and without hesitation, answered, “I’m building a cathedral.” Both of these bricklayers were accurate, but only one had a purpose.

Why is purpose important?

When people are asked what matters most to them, having a sense of purpose ranks high on the list. In fact, research by Gallup has even suggested that some people place a greater emphasis on purpose than they do on getting a bigger salary. Why would that be? Here are four reasons to consider:

1. Purpose is the antidote to uncertainty

Thanks to the pandemic, life today feels unstable. The future is uncertain and that is difficult. Knowing our purpose is the antidote to uncertainty. When you don’t know your purpose, you are unsure how your work matters and are left feeling unclear and unstable.  When we know how our work matters, we work harder, feel happier, and perform better.

2. Purpose boosts our capacity to make the greatest impact in the work we do

Purpose boosts our capacity to make the greatest impact in the work we do and to connect with other people across cultures and contexts. We are happier, more engaged, and more creative when we have a sense of purpose at work.  People who consider their work to have purpose tend to be more satisfied than those who think of their work as “just” a job.

Having a purpose at work is not restricted to people in leadership or vocational roles. For example, I shared a story I’d read about Meghan which is particularly pertinent right now. Meghan works in janitorial services at a major hospital, and she takes great pride in her work. One day, she pairs up with a new team member to show him the correct way to clean rooms. But, he seems ambivalent about his new job, and about the importance of following strict cleaning procedures. So, Meghan explains why their team’s job is one of the most important in the hospital. When they do thorough work, there are fewer germs in the operating and patient rooms. Their diligence reduces the number of secondary infections. That, in turn, helps keep patients healthier. Potentially, their work could save lives. Meghan’s story is an inspiring example of how people can find purpose in their work; that is, they can see the full impact of the work that they do.

3. Having a purpose can help us overcome obstacles

Having a purpose has helped a lot of us cope with the challenges that the pandemic presented.  Children still needed education; the elderly still needed care; people with health issues who couldn’t leave their houses still needed food. It was through having a strong sense of purpose that people took the actions necessary to overcome those challenges.

4. Purpose improves your well-being

Finding the meaning in what you do doesn’t just increase your motivation to get out of bed and head to work. Purpose plays a key role in your well-being. It is linked to improved physical health — like better sleep, reduced risk of dementia, and even a longer lifespan. Feeling like there is an important reason behind what you do can also improve mental health – reduced stress and anxiety levels.

In my next blog post, I’ll share my thoughts on how you can find your purpose at work.  In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.  If you’re interested in delivering a similar webinar for your organisation, please get in touch.

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