Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that “life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose”.
Frankl’s assertion perfectly captures the centrality of purpose in our work and in our lives. It motivates us, making it more likely we’ll achieve our goals and be pleased with our successes.
Purpose is something that’s highly personal, and it influences how we act in all areas of life. A sense of purpose, of contributing to a ‘greater good’ or to something bigger than individual goals, often draws people to a particular passion or field. Some speak of having a personal ‘calling’ – something they feel destined to do. And purpose is an idea that not only manifests in how we choose to spend our leisure time, but in the careers paths we follow too.
None of us enjoy or find fulfilment in working at seemingly pointless tasks, day after day. We like to feel like our time and energy is directed towards something useful, an idea or goal that we buy into. This sense of purpose keeps us motivated, gives us pride in what we produce, encourages us to meet challenges head-on and acts as a buffer against excessive pressure and stress.
Although most of us can relate to this idea, recalling monotonous or unfulfilling jobs we’ve had at some point in our careers, it’s not just a subjective experience. There is science behind the concept of purpose. Studies have shown that many people want their employer to be making a contribution, at some level, to the greater wellbeing of society. This often determines the career they choose and the level of commitment they bring to it.
A study of just under 8000 millennials in the United States found that, when launching their careers, they identified with organisations that prioritised making a social contribution in preference to those that emphasised profit. The majority of office workers – 89%, according to research by Staples – seek fulfilment at work. And research by Mercer found that 70% of employees who identify themselves as thriving professionally and personally say they work for a company with a strong sense of purpose.
People who attribute meaning to their work are also less susceptible to suffering stress-related illnesses – depression, anxiety, high blood pressure – and are therefore less prone to sickness absence. When you consider that absenteeism and presenteeism combined are estimated to cost the UK economy £77.5bn each year, it’s clear that purpose is crucial for both individual and organisational health.
This is true across all industries, but nowhere more so than in the banking sector.
Our own research into wellbeing in banking, conducted in partnership with business psychologists Robertson Cooper, drew on over 1,300 employee responses from three leading UK banks. It allowed us to better understand the links between purpose, performance and the state of wellbeing in the banking industry.
Our findings showed that up to 40% of bank workers’ commitment to, and satisfaction with, their organisation could be explained by a strong sense of purpose. The report found that lack of clarity around boss’s expectations, lack of job enjoyment, dull or repetitive work and lack of support from others, are the main barriers to feeling a an individual sense of purpose at work. As banks look to make their mark in a revitalised, values-led industry, their success depends on enabling staff at all organisational levels to feel part of that mission.
Clarity of role is particularly important here because if employees don’t understand their role, how can they be expected to appreciate how they contribute to the overall goals of the organisation? If this is the case they will lack both confidence and sense of purpose. Implicitly, such a disconnect will make it very hard for individuals to comprehend how the wider goals and values of the organisation align with their own.
This is a particularly important lesson for the banking sector, whose employees have periodically been exposed to negative media coverage of their industry. The resulting dissonance between what employees believed their bank to stand for and how the public came to perceive them, will undoubtedly have been painful for them to deal with.
Banks have made great efforts to rebuild public confidence, to restore their links to the wider community and to reconnect with their employees in order to re-establish a sense of shared purpose. Their continued progress in this will have a determining influence on their future performance and success.
A version of this piece first appeared in HR Zone.