Engage Employees by Helping Them Fulfill Their Sense of Purpose

Co-written with Deborah McKeever, president and chief operating officer of EHE International, Centers of Excellence in Preventive Healthcare.


Recruiting and keeping top talent is one of the keys to having a successful business, and there's increasing recognition that if employers do not engage their workers in an effective way, employees will take their business elsewhere.

Top employees not only want to survive, they want to thrive, and they will seek out businesses that help them do so.

An untapped resource that could help businesses recruit and retain top employees is to understand employees' sense of purpose and aligning that purpose with their corporate mission.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that over the previous year, approximately 2.7 to 2.8 million employees quit their jobs monthly. A recent report from Deloitte, based on surveys and interviews with more than 3,300 business and human resources leaders from 106 countries, stated that culture and engagement, and how to engage and empower people was a top concern cited, as was improving human resources.

These results can be understood as related, since theory and initial research suggest that employees may quit jobs because they feel a "lack of empowerment."

Empowering people is perhaps best accomplished by understanding what matters to them. Positive-psychology theorists suggest that sense of purpose-an understanding of what makes a person feel significant and meaningful--is a key to thriving. Employees whose workplace facilitates achievement of sense of purpose will be more engaged and productive.

It should be understood that healthy employees are more productive employees. There's increasing recognition that employee health is an important factor in determining employee productivity, and that this includes both mental and physical health. People who have a strong sense of purpose appear to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. For example, one research study that followed more than 6,000 people over the course of 14 years found that those who died were less likely to have a sense of purpose.

In addition, people with a strong sense of purpose may be more forward-thinking and more optimistic. This relation may be reciprocal, as optimistic people may be more likely to adapt their sense of purpose to adjust to stressful situations. Research suggests that higher levels of optimism are associated with improved employee productivity.

Moreover, as time goes on, people who have a strong sense of purpose, and therefore make social investments in work, relationships, and community may develop conscientiousness, or the ability to be thorough, careful, and vigilant. Studies suggest that people who have social investments, such as an investment in the workplace, develop higher levels of conscientiousness. Not surprisingly, conscientious workers also tend to be better work performers.

Thus, facilitating employee sense of purpose should be a win all around. Yet little experimental research exists to guide these interventions in or outside of the workplace.

So, for employers who would like to determine whether improving employee sense of purpose can improve employee health and well-being, some possible strategies may include:

1) Hire "purposeful" employees, whose sense of purpose is work-based. Research suggests that this is no easy task, with estimates saying that only 28 percent of workers derive their sense of purpose from work.

2) Reinforce the connection between employer purpose and employee purpose through company communications. Company-wide internal communications have the potential to improve engagement by encouraging employees to identify and develop their sense of purpose and utilize the workplace to achieve their personal goals.

3) Increase manager interactions with employees that determine whether an employee's sense of purpose is being fulfilled at work. It's becoming increasingly clear that workers quit their managers, not their company. Managers who routinely assess employee purpose and connect that purpose with corporate goals can improve engagement and trust from employees.

4) Allow for flexible work hours that might facilitate employees' freedom to pursue purposeful life goals outside the workplace. Increasingly, employees, particularly millennials, want to have flexibility to achieve work-life balance. This work-life balance can be understood as a vehicle for pursuing an employee's overall sense of purpose, including balancing purposeful work goals with other life goals. Businesses that are respectful of this need can improve employee retention.

Understanding employee sense of purpose and aligning that sense of purpose with employer goals is an untapped resource for recruiting and retaining top employees. This is a win-win, as employees develop motivational structure to excel, while the employers have an engaged and productive workforce.

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in New York City and a member of EHE International's Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

Deborah McKeever is president and chief operating officer of EHE International, Centers of Excellence in Preventive Healthcare.