Finding purpose has become a hot topic of conversation in many workplaces. A few weeks ago, I chatted with my friend and colleague Glenn Carter, the Head of Tech Capability at ANZ Bank in Sydney. He had asked me to do a presentation on ‘Purpose’ for ANZ the year before. 

In 2023, he had a similar presentation to deliver, and we were able to exchange our thoughts about any new concepts that have emerged in the last 12 months. This conversation prompted me to write a post on purpose (with more questions than answers) and explore how we can all make sense of it in the current times.

Executive coach Katharine McLennan says that helping employees find purpose or at least partially meet these expectations has a significant impact on organisational leaders. Katharine is my first stopover in this quest.

‘Now, more than ever, leaders have to understand the conditions by which their employees thrive: mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The talent who leaves organisations is leaving because they can find better places elsewhere, places that pay attention to the importance of purpose in work that the employee wants to connect to. This is the spiritual aspect of work, the meaning of work-which comes to the fore when we found ourselves locked away in our homes pondering the meaning of work and our relationship to it compared to all of the other parts of our lives,’ Katharine explains.

It’s More than Money; It’s Finding Fulfilling Work

PwC’s 2022 Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey of 52,195 workers across 44 countries showed that ‘meaning’ factors were about as important as ‘just the money’. Unfortunately, their findings will be a rude awakening for some global leaders. Workers who feel they have leverage and a position of power require more than pay; they also want the opportunity to be their authentic selves and find fulfilling work.[1]

How we live our life is the outcome of our choices and decisions and perhaps a little bit of fate. The search for meaning and purpose has always been there, but it has come to our awareness now, more than ever, because we have had more time to reflect and explore alternative ways of living.

Instead of pursuing purpose, we need to change the quality of conversations we can have between managers and employees, colleagues and friends, so our brains can digest what has been going on and how it has affected how we view life.

As I watch actor Dick Van Dyke at 97 in awe, taking on a new role in ‘Days of Our Lives’, I listen to him say, ‘Always keep moving. Always keep working.’ His 2015 book ‘Keep Moving’ puts into context the above motto when he shares his story of being diagnosed with severe arthritis at the age of 40.[2] He has been moving ever since. His purpose was not to be confined to a walker or wheelchair. And his idea worked--as we can all see.

Quotes by Dick Van Dyke

Finding Purpose within the Chaos of Modern Times

I cannot help but ponder that if we think of ‘purpose’ as the ‘survival’ function of our brain, we could possibly relax about the idea that our organisation or our manager have to offer us ‘purposeful’ work. Does the burden of finding purpose fall to the organisation and the leaders within or ourselves?

Recent research found that about 85% of people felt they had a purpose, but only about 65% of those people thought they could actually describe or articulate that purpose.[3] During the pandemic, front-line workers were required to work during a time when others stayed at home. For those people, their purpose might have been that they still need to work, but they would like to do it without getting ill.

People who were removed from a physical workplace still needed to work, but now that work looked and felt very different. The question then became, what does work mean? Is it something purposeful or something we have to do to pay bills?

Of course, some people are blessed to have jobs they enjoy, while others simply go to work to get a cheque at the end of the month. This has always been the case, and it will continue unless AI replaces us all, setting us free to go home and do whatever we want. The challenges that AI and Robotics pose for society are still to be unveiled, and it is not the aim of this post, although it prompts me to explore these questions:

  • What would you do with your time if you had all the time in the world? 
  • How would you spend your days? 

Research by McKinsey says that 70% of people define their purpose through work. Millennials, in particular, are likely to see work as their ‘life calling.’[3]

Here is when I find the conversation about purpose even more interesting. What if instead of demanding purpose and meaning, we were to focus on having more balance in our lives and better connections with others? Can these two aims replace the illusive need for purpose?

If you think about it, it might be excruciating for leaders to create meaning and give each team member a sense of purpose. They may never find the right formula because there is probably no such thing as a formula for this.

Diploma of Neurobiology of Coaching, Wellbeing & Brain-Friendly Practices

Maybe We Should Focus on Creating Connections Instead of ‘Purpose’

What leaders can do, instead, is to provide an environment where connection and belonging are fostered, where people share their victories and disappointments, and they feel safe to do so.  Being heard, acknowledged, and included impacts how we feel, possibly more than the work itself.

Being part of a ‘group’ or ‘tribe’ has always made us feel safe to a certain extent, more than finding ourselves walking solo in the middle of the savannah.

Corporate goals take us away from feeling connected, and continuous pressure and demands take us away from a state of balance. Digital technology has helped us pack more in less time; however, this is not good for our minds. 

The brain has not changed its structure to cope with such demands. Hybrid working has erased boundaries between work, rest and leisure in favour of work. It has also diminished social bonds, leading to fewer friends at work and weaker social and emotional connections.

This is when stress creeps in, and we start to notice that what we are working on might have no meaning whatsoever. Our minds might then start to ponder about what our purpose is at all, inviting personal reinvention. Deloitte’s 2021 Global Capital Trends Report concluded that the most important way organisations can unleash their employees' potential is ‘to empower them with agency and choice over what they want to do.’[4]

It is at these moments, perhaps more than any other, that we as humans truly feel alone. If we cannot determine what we should be doing and why, we often lose our connections with others. 

Loneliness is a Public Health Issue

It is very likely that when we can combine a sense of enjoyment for the task at hand, a real possibility of autonomy, feelings of connection and the ability to manage our stress levels without constantly feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, the conversation about purpose will start to shift. 

What if the brain’s sole purpose is about survival and procreation, as Anders Hansen explains in his book ‘The Happiness Cure’?[5] What would happen if you, the carrier of that brain, realised that life is about enjoying life, providing food and resources to our families and socialising to avoid feeling unsafe and lonely?

Many health organisations consider loneliness one of our largest health concerns. Loneliness is linked to a range of adverse physical and mental health outcomes. Research has shown that chronic loneliness can increase the risk of developing depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.[6] 

Loneliness has also been linked to increased stress levels, reduced immune function and higher rates of cardiovascular disease. One study published by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of heart attack and stroke by about 30%.[7] 

While social isolation is often associated with older populations (65 and above), data suggests that loneliness amongst younger adults (18-25), women and low-income individuals have increased because of the Covid pandemic.[8]

As health organisations continue to identify loneliness and social isolation as important public health issues, efforts are underway to develop interventions and strategies to support social connections and reduce the negative impacts of loneliness on health and wellbeing.

What can we do as individuals when we feel loneliness? Connecting with others is a powerful way to find purpose and meaning in life. Some ways to reconnect with others include:

  1. Joining groups or clubs: Joining clubs that align with your interests can be a great way to meet like-minded people. These should not be limited to work, but rather, think about things you like to do in your free time.
  2. Volunteer: Volunteering for causes you are passionate about can help you feel like you are making a difference while also providing opportunities to connect with others who share your values.
  3. Reach out to old friends: Reaching out to old friends and acquaintances is a good way to reconnect with people you may have lost touch with. It is normal for friendships to wax and wane as we grow as individuals, but it’s nice to reach out and check in with people we once shared a life with.
  4. Take a class: Taking classes or attending workshops (non-work related) can provide opportunities to learn new skills and meet people who are also learning. Dancing, music, painting, languages--literally, the sky is the limit.
  5. Seek professional help: Seeking the help of a therapist or counsellor can provide support and guidance when we struggle to connect with others and find meaning within ourselves. 

Leaders are Only One Piece of the Puzzle

When we feel alone and disconnected, we may turn to our work to fill that void. However, leaders are not prepared to help everyone they work with find purpose. 

Instead, leaders should provide an environment that provides better balance so the brain can operate in the best possible manner. They could support physical and mental health, for example. They could learn to be more empathetic and ready to listen to concerns. 

Leaders do not have a magic wand to bestow purpose on anyone automatically. Still, they can use neuroscience to help employees find the balance to have a meaningful, happy existence. 

I have been asked to speak about ‘Purpose’ again at the 2023 ‘International Mental Health Conference’ on the Gold Coast on June 7-9th. This theme seems to be an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to everyone’s mind and how we are able to take care of it. Neuroscience has certainly been exploring the benefits of a purpose-driven life and how it can impact longevity and overall health.[9]

I want to invite you to leave aside for a moment this incessant pursuit of purpose and what our work can offer us and welcome, instead, the idea that having good health, balance, togetherness, love, affection, and enjoyment is probably more important to start with. 

Supportive leaders are necessary to find the balance needed to be ourselves, but these are the other pieces of the puzzle, and we need them all to build a complete picture.

Once we feel good about ourselves and in a state of balance, it might be when we can make sense of what matters to us the most and what we can do to contribute to society while on this planet.

Citations:

  1. PricewaterhouseCoopers. PwC’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2022.
  2. Van Dyke D, Gold T. Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths about Aging. Weinstein Books; 2015.
  3. Dhingra N, Schaninger B. The search for purpose at work
  4. Deloitte 2021 Global Human Capital Trends Report. In: Deloitte Ukraine [Internet]. 16 Dec 2020.
  5. Hansen A. The Happiness Cure: Why You’re Not Built for Constant Happiness, and How to Find a Way Through. Ebury Publishing; 2023.
  6. Steen OD, Ori APS, Wardenaar KJ, van Loo HM. Loneliness associates strongly with anxiety and depression during the COVID pandemic, especially in men and younger adults. Sci Rep. 2022;12: 9517.
  7. Social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of death from heart attack, stroke. In: American Heart Association [Internet].
  8. Are You Feeling Lonely? In: www.heart.org [Internet].
  9. Kaplin A, Anzaldi L. New Movement in Neuroscience: A Purpose-Driven Life. Cerebrum. 2015;2015: 7.
Originally posted on: 8 May 2023
Last updated on: 25 May 2024

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Silvia Damiano

Silvia Damiano

Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute

Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.

Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.

Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership

In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.

Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.

Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.

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