The Boardroom series: Purpose or play: what’s more important in the workplace?

Having a sense of purpose in life has long been recognised as a key component of psychological wellbeing. Furthermore, it is well-evidenced that when individuals feel their work has meaning or purpose, they have increased motivation and demonstrate higher levels of organisational commitment and resilience. (Read Michael Steger’s or Paul Wong’s work in this field if you want to learn more on this.)

Over recent years, the topic of purpose-led business has attracted even more attention than ever. However, the pursuit of purpose comes with some potential risks. For this reason, in this month’s boardroom series article, I am going to discuss the importance of purpose, at an organisational and an individual level. I will then share some simple ways that you can optimise its positive power in your personal life and business, and explain how play can be a powerful antidote to mitigate some of the risks.

Why is everyone talking about purpose?

The increased focus on organisational and individual purpose in the workplace is attributed to many sources. There are three of these which I will focus on today:

  1. Studies indicate that Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are more motivated by finding meaningful work than previous generations, often overriding financial incentives. Forbes magazine has suggested that financial stability is more important for Gen Z, however, purpose is still a core driver. Furthermore, from my experience, this is also not limited to these generations. What is clear is that purpose plays a key role in attracting and motivating talent, and it looks likely that it will become increasingly so.
  2. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, once humans have their basic needs met (eg. food, water, shelter, physical safety etc.), we naturally seek to attend to our higher-level needs. These include a sense of belonging, psychological growth and personal meaning, eventually leading to what is known as ‘self-actualisation’ or fulfilling our potential. In the post-Covid world, 7 out of 10 people are reassessing their values and reflecting more deeply on what fulfils their higher-level needs. This is inspiring many to look to their jobs to provide more than just a salary – purpose is becoming more important in what drives staff satisfaction and retention.
  3. Modern consumers are using their purchasing power to express their personal purpose, choosing brands that address social challenges or whose values align with their own. This means that, if businesses want to build a loyal customer base, having a positive social purpose matters and companies are using this as a marketing tool. (If you are interested in this idea and have not read Good is the New Cool, by Afdhel Aziz, I highly recommend it.)

What are the risks of a purpose-led business or life?

If we know that having a purpose supports individual wellbeing and fulfilment, and that a purpose-led business is likely to attract the best new talent, motivate and inspire loyalty in existing employees, and drive sales too, it might seem that this is a win-win-win situation. While I support that this is the case, our quest for meaning does not come without some potential risks. Below are three I have identified, as well as some possible ways to mitigate them. 

Purpose as a Pressure

It is true that individuals who find work which aligns with their personal purpose report enjoying their work more, as well as performing better. However, on the flipside, many others report feeling a “pressure” to “find a purpose”. In conversations with my 1:1 clients, people have explained how they feel like they are “failing” as they don’t have a ‘purpose’ and others report a sense of discomfort or shame as they see their purpose is “too selfish”. 

The challenge is that the word ‘purpose’ seems to have been elevated in a way that many people believe it needs to be a world-changing mission. This is not the case. A purpose can be to be a great parent, to travel widely, or to support your local community. It does not have to be at a global level, and it does not need to be solely associated with your work.

So, what’s the solution?

As an individual seeking purpose,

  • Take the pressure off! Remember that a purpose is more about what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and makes you proud, as you brush your teeth at night. This can be in any facet of your work or personal life, or a combination of both.
  • If you feel you would benefit from a little more motivation to get out of bed or feel that there are not many things that give you a sense of pride or satisfaction, you may want to try designing a ‘personal growth plan’ for yourself. This simply means trying a new hobby on a regular basis, for an extended period of time, with a goal in mind. Again, you can do this with a focus on your work or personally. You can do this on your own, with a coach or with a manager at work.

As a manager or employer who is trying to support the wellbeing and performance of your team,

  • Don’t assume that everyone’s passion or purpose lies at work. Some people are more career minded and so progression, status and recognition might be their key drivers. For others, mentoring new team members or getting involved in social projects might be more aligned with their purpose. And for some, their purpose might be external to the organisation. Find out what drives your people, what inspires, what gives them joy and pride.
  • If someone’s purpose is not focused on their work, it does not limit their commitment to the company. In fact, knowing their personal drivers enables you to work with them to ensure that their work is supporting their purpose. This is likely to make them more motivated to do their work and more loyal to the organisation. Knowing their ‘why’ will enable you to work more effectively with them.
  • Ensure your team know how their specific roles contribute to organisational purpose and goals, including financial as well as ESG commitments. Knowing how one’s work fits into the bigger picture of a business is another key component of giving people a sense of purpose at work.

Purpose & Burnout

Burnout is a phenomenon which is defined as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress”. It was first recognised in the caring professions, such as hospital workers, careers which typically are associated with having great and pervasive purpose. 

This commitment to purpose within their work contributed to high levels of emotional exhaustion and meant that they often put the demands of their career before their personal needs, needs as basic as rest and time off. They believed caring for others was more important than self-care and over time their capacity to deal with the demands of their work was diminished, leading to burnout. Working with people in diverse organisations, including ones working on Covid-related research or treatment, I have seen this first-hand, particularly over the last 18 months. 

So, what’s the solution?

As an individual who is feeling drained,

  • When our work has a purpose that we believe is important, it can be harder to switch off and harder to take a break. However, if we burn ourselves out, we are not going to be able to help anyone, and in fact may become a burden on our team, organisation, or clients, as a result of our depleted state. 
  • Taking care of yourself is the best thing you can do for yourself and those around you as it will enable you to perform at your best without burning out. Remember that, and commit to taking short breaks in the day and prioritising time away from your work each day (and ideally away from technology too).

As a manager or employer trying to prevent burnout in your team,

  • Remember that as a manager trying to support others, you too are at risk of burnout! More than 96% of managers experience some degree of burnout in their careers. Being a manager is in essence a caring role so prioritise looking after yourself so that you can support those around you. (You can read more about how this contributes to Sustainable Leadership here.)
  • Encourage your teams to take time out for breaks and switching off by not only being a role model, but visibly demonstrating this – add ‘lunch break’ into your calendar, encourage your team to go for a walk over lunchtime and share photos of what they have seen, if you are writing emails at night, ensure that they are drafted and not sent until the following morning…. Small visible steps that send the message that it is not only ‘ok’ to switch off, but rather a key component of what makes a good leader and team member.

Read this fantastic article by Michael Steger and Berkeley Greater Good to get some more tips.

Don’t Forget the Power of Play

The field of positive psychology fundamentally looks at the factors that enable people to live a “good life”, fulfilling their potential in line with their own values and goals. What this looks like is unique to each and every one of us. However, in all of us, it requires a combination of eudemonic and hedonic components. Eudemonic factors are those aligned with the higher-level needs in Maslow’s model, including meaning, purpose, social contribution, and personal growth. Hedonic factors are those associated with the experience of pleasure, such as joy, and the absence of pain or sadness. 

This model can be equally valuable when considering what makes the workplace fulfilling, enabling people to reach their potential, do their best work, and feel satisfied by this. To thrive at work, we need both eudemonic and hedonic wellbeing. We need purpose AND we need play!

So, what’s the solution?

If you are looking for a little more play in your work, 

  • Remember the motto ‘work hard, play hard’ and realise that fully committing your attention to both is important. When are looking to work hard, focus on your work, limiting distractions like message notifications, alerts, and calls. Equally, when you are focusing on playing, do the same, closing down your computer, switching off your phone, and ensuring you are really investing in your down time. It will make both your work and your play more fulfilling and effective.
  • Identify where ‘play’ does exist in your life and see how you can recreate more of those moments. What gives you the most joy at work? What activities do you find energising? When did you last laugh with colleagues? What were you doing? Were you in the office or online? What enabled that moment? And then, ask yourself, how can you multiply similar moments in the week ahead? You can apply this practice to all areas of your life.

As a manager or employer, 

  • Never underestimate the power of having fun at work! Studies have shown then creating ways to integrate play into every day working life is linked with increased productivity, reduced stress, enhanced engagement, commitment and loyalty. Instant easy wins are adding a 2 to 5-minute icebreaker activity to the start of every meeting or inserting other activities which are not outcome-focused into your weekly routine. Off-sites can be another opportunity to do this and, in my experience, are what employees report as their most positive memories of their working careers.
  • Recognise and reward actions and behaviours in colleagues which are not directly related to performance and compliance. These can be nominations for demonstrates your company values or for more generally respected virtues such as kindness. 
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. While what you do might be serious, how you do it can be fun. The science says that adopting a playful mindset enhances productivity, innovation, and resilience, and it makes every day just a little bit better. 

The benefits of having purpose are, I would suggest, undeniable. Equally, the importance of play is fundamental. To live a sustainable, happy, and meaningful life, to create thriving and successful businesses, and to fulfil our potential both as individuals and organisations, we need both purpose and play. And I hope that having read this, you will have a few ideas of how to ensure you prioritise both in your life and workplace. 

If you want to discuss this topic more, join Michelle Morgan, Rob Stephenson and I at The Conduit Club on Monday May 9th for an evening on the topic of Purpose or Play: What’s really more important?

Scroll to Top