How much does purpose matter to your people? Engaging employees in the age of workism

Last month, Atlantic writer Derek Thompson introduced a new term into the professional lexicon: “Workism.”

Workism, he says, is “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life purpose.” It manifests in the way we think about our jobs––not just as what we do, but as who we are.

This idea — that work has become its own religion, and that our cultural obsession with it has led to increased burnout and disengagement — has been around at least a decade. And for Thompson, it’s an alarming trend.

Work was never meant to be religion, he argues, and employees have a whole lot of stress and anxiety as a result.

The search for meaning in work

To different degrees, many of us look to our jobs to bring purpose to our lives. Some crave community, some are oriented around social causes, and others want a path to personal and professional growth. (Thompson points to an article in Forbes that says this is especially true for millennials, who are quick to look for the exit sign when their employers don’t meet their expectations.)

On its face, none of this seems like a bad thing. Having an unhealthy relationship with work is bad, of course, and we’ve all seen the effects of stress and anxiety. But if we’re going to spend the majority of our waking hours on the job, why shouldn’t we look at it as more than just a means to an end?

What’s wrong with searching for real meaning in work?

More than a paycheck

At Bravely, we see the benefit of seeking more than a paycheck. While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that employees should be worshipping their work, we think it’s okay—normal and healthy, even—to go “all in” on your job.

We’d tell Thompson that “workism” alone isn’t the problem.

The problem is that employees start to crumble under the weight of their “workism” when their expectations don’t match those of their employers.

They grow disengaged when they burn the midnight oil and then don’t receive the promotion they think they’re owed. They get anxious when their path to promotion isn’t perceived to be clear. They become disillusioned when the behind-the-curtain view of a company’s mission isn’t as motivating as they had hoped. When their expectations aren’t met, their workplace health suffers.

So who’s to blame? Are employees expecting too much of a workplace that owes them nothing more than a paycheck, or are employers just not prepared to match their employees’ cultural understanding of what work is?

The answer is neither. Getting the most out of life at work is a conversation between employer and employee. Arriving at transparency and alignment around expectations is a collaborative process, and could be the antidote to disengagement and burnout.  

Creating an enriching experience for your employees

Employee engagement is crucial to any organization’s health. Look no further than the bottom line: employee engagement pays dividends in retention and productivity. With employee expectations higher than ever, how do you give them what they need to keep them around?

  1. Communicate your purpose. Ensure that your entire team understands the company’s mission and goals. Most mission statements are written with the customer in mind; consider supplementing yours with an employee-facing one.

  2. Be transparent. Establish what’s expected of people and teams by identifying OKRs (objectives and key results) at the start of each quarter. Then share progress and wins with the whole team, and support staff in understanding how their efforts contribute to them. At Bravely HQ, we start each week with an all-hands look at our OKRs, and end it “Friday Wins,” a meeting in every team member shares at least one accomplishment aimed at improving the OKRs. This allows everyone to see how their work moves the whole organization forward.

  3. Show clear paths upward. Growth and mobility can mean different things at different organizations. Show your employees the paths that are open to them, and help them understand how to move forward on each of them.

  4. Hire for “mission fit.” Do you hire people who care about your customers, and will be driven by your mission? Skills and culture fit are important, but starting with employees who are invested in the work makes engaging your staff that much easier.

  5. Provide space for dialogue. Ultimately, employee engagement comes out of open conversations. True inclusion means ensuring that all your employees have the space to be themselves, speak up, and express their needs. Sometimes that takes some outside help in the form of a third-party resource, like Bravely.