Purpose at work - It's often cheap talk, but it doesn't have to be
Don’t throw the bull out with the bullshit
For many people today, work is an important source of purpose.
This is not the new phenomenon it is sometimes made out to be - you can find roots in Ancient Greek philosophy (apparently) - but it has definitely grown in prominence and dominance. A 2020 survey found that 93% of employees agreed that “now more than ever before, companies must lead with purpose”.
I suspect this growth is partially due to the decline in people’s other sources of purpose. Much of the wealthy world is experiencing weakening of community bonds, reduced religious participation, less sex, rises in loneliness and drops in trust. All of which leaves people placing more and more hope in the workplace to plug the “meaning” gap that has opened in their lives.
It is a need that many employers have been only too willing to tap into. Large U.S. tech companies were in the forefront here, with lofty mission statements (Facebook aims to “bring the world closer together”) complemented by a sense of community and all manner of perks, the result of which was employees with fewer incentives to leave the workplace than ever before.
There has been a strong backlash to the trend of more and more people allowing their job to form a significant part of their identity. Some argue that this is a way for employers to wring more work and effort from purpose-hungry employees and pay them less money in return.1 Eventually, it is said, many of these employees will come to realise that for all the sweat and tears and devotion they’ve put in, work doesn’t love them back.
Many companies’ embrace of purpose sounds awfully like marketers’ constant attempts to convince us that the purchase of some good or service will make us better people or fill some great void. Owning an Apple product suggests you think differently. Drinking Pepsi will help you live bolder and miraculously help protestors and police put aside their differences. And dealing with customer queries at a luggage company is equivalent to “joining a movement”.
Work: somewhere between purposeful and purposeless
As with most arguments, both sides are partially right. The backlash against (too much) purpose at work rightly points out that the promise of self-fulfilment can be a powerful tool of exploitation, tricking employees out of demanding their due at a time of record inequality. It can also create a vicious circle: reducing the time and energy people have for community life outside of the workplace, causing relationships to fray and institutions to crumble, further narrowing the non-work options for those seeking a sense of purpose, belonging, fulfilment.
And yet as with many backlashes, there is a risk of overcorrection. When work gets classified as nothing more than how executives trick the foolish masses into giving up happy blissful leisure to make the rich richer, it ignores that in most jobs people earn money by creating value for others. Providing dental care, farming crops, sewing shawls, manufacturing engines, painting art. The actual utility of each of these acts varies, but generate utility they do. And when it comes to solving the big challenges like fighting climate change and poverty, defending human rights and biodiversity - which even the greatest cynic would confess are meaningful goals - it will be workers that help us get there.
It is not only that being overly sceptical about purpose can cause us to miss out on the positive impact and meaning that our work produces. There’s also the fact that many of us work for companies that are generating serious harms for society, whether we are aware of them or not. And a clock-in, clock-out attitude to work can discourage people from deepening their understanding of the impacts their work contributes to, and doing something about it.
As journalist Jamie Calven put it:
One of the dangers is that people will instead become demoralized and retreat into denial, that they will seek refuge amid the pleasures and fulfillments of private life. That would give carte blanche to power. There was a term used in central Europe to describe those who opted to retreat into private life under totalitarianism. They were called ‘internal emigres.’ That is certainly tempting at a time like this: to live one’s life in the wholly private realm, enjoying the company of friends, good food and drink, the pleasures of literature and music, and so on. Privileged sectors of our society are already heavily skewed that way. It’s a real danger at a time like this. If we withdraw from public engagement now, we aid and abet that which we deplore.2
Honest work is purposeful work
In a world full of staggering challenges and widespread apathy, the last thing I want is for people to lose their sense of purpose in the precise setting where they can potentially have the greatest impact.
What I want is for people’s sense of purpose at work to be informed by the impacts their companies have on the world, and be harnessed in addressing those impacts. Because while just about all work may create value for someone, it may be outweighed by the value it wipes out for many more. Airlines might enable people to have unforgettable experiences, but if they had to account for the environmental damage they caused, many would cease to exist.
Employees’ access to negative information about their companies is often limited, and thus they can end up buying rosy stories about the impact they’re having. In a survey of oil company employees, for example, nearly 100% of those working in the marketing departments believed their company was somewhat ready for the energy transition - yet this belief was shared by just 44% of engineers and 20% of those in finance roles. This mixed access to information is why the Honest Work website hosts a range of resources to help employees understand the sustainability and ethical issues their companies are involved with, as well as leaderboards for how their company performs compared to peers (just check “How’s your company doing” on any of the “What to change” pages).
So work has plenty of potential for purpose, just maybe not the one your employer is trying to sell you on. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper, understand what your company’s true impacts are . . . and then decide what you’re going to do about it.
A 2018 survey of 3,000 adults in the US found that 71% of professionals would be willing to take a pay cut to work for a company that has a mission they believe in and shared values.