The Anatomy of a Purpose-Driven Workforce

In the search for the special sauce of employee engagement, “purpose” has become one of the biggest buzzwords in People & Culture circles – and rightfully so. On average, we will spend 90,000 hours of our lifetime at work. We deserve to feel like we are contributing something meaningful to the world in that time.

But what does this purpose really look like in the workplace? It is seen as an inherently positive factor in employee satisfaction and performance, but our data at Plasticity Labs suggests that the true anatomy of a purpose-driven employee is complex, unique, and not nearly as straight-forward as you might think.

Here at Plasticity Labs, we define purpose-driven work as any work that makes a meaningful and prosocial contribution to something that is greater than the self. The most commonly recognized examples of this type of work are education and health care.

For example, consider teachers: while they do receive compensation for their work, many teachers have selected the teaching profession because they believe in the inherent importance of education; they have prioritized a meaningful and prosocial consideration of something greater than the self in their work.

Across hundreds of Plasticity Insights reports over the last three years, we have started to see clear trends emerge in how these purpose-driven employees compare to employees who do not have the same degree of purpose in their jobs.


Method and Analysis

Our standard Plasticity Insights survey is a quarterly or bi-annual pulse survey that assesses 20 core drivers across employee engagement, culture, well-being, and performance.

To best understand the anatomy of the purpose-driven employee, we aggregated the data from Plasticity Insights survey responses between October and November of 2018. In total, this dataset consisted of 3715 employee responses across twelve organizations.

We coded every employee response to indicate either high or low-levels of purpose depending on how central a prosocial contribution was to that individual’s job. This process was conducted at the employee-level; for example, a teacher would be coded as “purpose-driven” because of their direct proximity to students every day, whereas a finance employee in the same school board would be coded as “not purpose-driven” because they do not have the same direct proximity to the student on a daily basis.

We then conducted independent samples t-tests comparing purpose-driven employees with non-purpose-driven employees across all 20 Plasticity Insights drivers.


The Healthy Prognosis

On the healthy side of a purpose-driven employee, our data supported many of the reasons why purpose is so sought after in organizations.

Our data suggests that purpose-driven employees are significantly more engaged[1], significantly more inspired[2], and significantly more likely to go above and beyond on the job[3] than employees who are lacking this type of purpose in their jobs.

This makes sense - purpose-driven employees rarely need to ask, “why am I here?” Every day, teachers get to teach students in need that make their job meaningful; nurses get to provide care for patients in need that make their job meaningful. In this kind of purpose-driven work, there is always a clear reason to be engaged and inspired and this helps to create a strong and emotional attachment to the work that they do.

However, this type of attachment can come at a cost, and the complexity of this purpose-driven work does have drawbacks that are less frequently discussed.


The Health Complications

Despite the clear benefits of feeling meaningfully connected to your work, our data suggests that there are also real and often undiscussed health complications associated with purpose-driven work.

Specifically, our results indicated that purpose-driven employees are significantly more stressed than non-purpose driven employees [4], and reported significantly lower levels of general well-being[5], resilience[6], and self-efficacy[7].

It is also important to note that these scores were employees’ self-perceptions. For example, many people would consider nurses to be some of the most resilient people in society – but this data suggests that nurses still report their own resilience as lower than employees in many other occupations.

This is a powerful illustration of how the weight of this purpose-driven work can affect even the strongest of people. Importantly, however, our results also suggested that this weight can be managed under the right conditions.


Managing the Complications

In purpose-driven teams, context matters. Our results indicated that the burden of purpose-driven work on employees’ stress and well-being can be minimized by a strong and positive team culture. Specifically, amongst purpose-driven employees, receiving adequate recognition for their efforts helped to minimize stress (β = -.18; p < .001) and improve well-being (β = .26; p < .001), and being able to safely and effectively provide feedback to leaders also had similar effects on both stress (β = -.14; p < .001) and well-being (β = .18; p < .001).

Interestingly, while our results indicate that recognition and feedback are indispensable in purpose-driven environments, our data also indicates that purpose-driven employees report significantly lower levels of recognition than non-purpose-driven employees [8], and are less likely to feel as though they can provide feedback and voice their concerns to their leaders[9]. This is an unfortunate catch-22 of purpose-driven work: the well-being of purpose-driven employees is so strongly tied to recognition and feedback, and yet, they are less likely to get the recognition and opportunity to provide feedback that they need to thrive.


An Action Plan for Purpose-Driven Employees

Taken together, our results highlight how complex and unique the anatomy of a purpose-driven employee can be. Being connected to purposeful work can be a double-edged sword; it can be engaging and inspiring, and give you a reason to go above and beyond in your job – but the weight of that purpose can also wear on you, drive up your stress levels, and have long-term effects on your well-being and resilience. We do not have to be helpless to these effects, however. If you manage purpose-driven employees or work in a purpose-driven field, here are some things you can start doing today to promote a healthy, purpose-driven workplace.

Two Tips for Purpose-Driven Managers

  1. Thank and recognize the effort as much as the outcome. Purpose-driven employees pour themselves into their work, and they often need to know that their efforts are being noticed and appreciated. Don’t wait for clear successes to say thank you - instead, thank their effort at every step of the process.

  2. Actively involve your employees in decision-making. Your employees on the ground know the opportunities for improvement in their job better than anyone. Open up channels for employees to provide ideas and provide a transparent review process that demonstrates that they are being heard and trusted to provide value.

Two Tips for Purpose-Driven Employees

  1. Take gratitude seriously. First, focus on gratitude. write down three things that you are grateful for every night before bed and why you are grateful for them. Second, express gratitude. When you see your colleagues go above and beyond, say thank you and let them know that you see their efforts. Feeling gratitude and expressing gratitude are both strongly related to your own personal well-being.

  2. Ask “how are you?” A strong community goes a long way in protecting the well-being of purpose-driven teams. No one understands the stress of your job like your colleagues and frequent check-ins can provide an opportunity to reset and provide support where needed. It all begins with a simple “how are you?”

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Dave Whiteside, PhD

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