Great Resignation: Purpose and meaning matter more than ever

Macquarie University/The Lighthouse
As workers quit their jobs en masse in the COVID-19 era, companies need to reassess what they offer to employees, says Professor Debbie Haski-Leventhal, Professor of Management at Macquarie Businesss School.

It was in November 2021 that Natasha decided to walk out on her job.

After more than four years of working for the same company, going through the highs of the honeymoon period and enjoying the new perks that came with the role, and then the lows of COVID-19 and seeing many of her colleagues being dismissed, she decided she’d had enough.

She no longer felt a sense of belonging or pride working for her employer. And even though she did not have alternative employment in hand, she decided to leave and look for a more meaningful job.

Natasha is not alone. In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that more than 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs – an unprecedented mass exit from the workforce. Many more millions around the globe did the same. In Australia, one in five employees left their workplace.

As humans, we are not created for a specific purpose. We need to seek it.

Coined the Great Resignation, we are witnessing a pivotal moment in the history of employment. However, this is not as sudden as some people think. For years, two-thirds of employees were disengaged or actively disengaged with their work. It is just that most people now understand that life is too short to work in a job that they hate.

Most people who quit their jobs are Millennials: employees between 30 and 45 years. Younger employees usually had the highest turnover rates, but this wave is different.

Some researchers attribute it to low pay and lack of opportunities for advancement, whereas others claim that people are just tired after the global pandemic and its consequences. However, there might be something else in play here. Capturing it could also give us the key to keeping employees.

An increasing number of people, particularly in the age groups that are now quitting their jobs, are looking for a sense of purpose. According to a McKinsey survey, nearly two-thirds of US-based employees reported in 2021 that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life.

The real deal: Meaningfulness at work is related to job satisfaction, wellbeing, employee engagement, and the desire to remain with the organisation, says Professor Haski-Leventhal.

Almost half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Millennials were three times more likely than others to say that they were evaluating work.

What is the purpose? As I explain in my TED talk, it is the reason for which something was created or exists. Every object around us was created for a reason. When objects can no longer serve their purpose, we deem them “broken” and terminate them. However, the purpose of a person or a company is more complex. As humans, we are not created for a specific purpose. We need to seek it.

In my upcoming book, Meaningfulness, I assert that we find purpose by tying our talents and skills with our passion and joy to generate a positive impact around us. For example, my friend Daniella Begg loves yoga but is also very passionate about helping refugees. She established The Refugee Yoga Project to connect the two to create a positive impact and find her purpose.

When we use who we are and what we know to serve others and help, we create a sense of purposefulness and meaning in our lives. This, in turn, can lead to higher levels of happiness, health, connectedness, and impact. Similarly, in the workplace, when we can attach our roles and our skills to our passion and impact, our work becomes more meaningful. Ample research has shown that meaningfulness at work is related to job satisfaction, wellbeing, employee engagement, and the desire to remain with the organisation.

What companies need to do

In the face of the Great Resignation, companies need to achieve two imperative goals: become more purpose-driven and the enablers of purpose and meaningfulness for their employees. Purpose-driven companies work to align who they are with their social impact. They utilise their power, resources, and knowledge to create positive outcomes in the world.

New world: Employers now need to become purpose-enablers, says Professor Debbie Haski-Leventhal.

As the impact-driven company Ben & Jerry’s says – “we are a company with a social mission, we just happen to make ice cream”. Companies need to seek or even go back to their higher purpose and articulate much better their impact and narrative of service and contribution to the world, and, most importantly here, to their employees.

But that’s no longer enough. Employers now need to become purpose-enablers – assisting and supporting their employees in defining their purpose and providing them with opportunities to do something meaningful to help others and offer a real contribution to society.

This can be done by extra-role behaviour such as corporate volunteering or mentoring others, or it can be done by simply helping the employee capture the positive impact their job has on the company. When employees feel that the company that they work for helps to change the world for the better and see how their work helps to do so, they develop a sense of pride, purposefulness, and meaningfulness.

One of my studies showed that 95 per cent of business students would sacrifice some level of their future salaries to work for an employer who cares deeply about its employees but also about all other stakeholders. Nearly one in five were willing to forgo more than 40 per cent. Pay them well too, and you win the war on talent. Increase their sense of meaningfulness, and you may build a relationship with them for life.

Debbie Haski-Leventhal is a Professor of Management at Macquarie Business School and an expert on corporate social responsibility (CSR), purpose, and volunteerism. She is a TED speaker and a public speaker on purpose and social responsibility. She has published over 60 academic papers and four books, including Strategic CSR: A Holistic Approach to Responsible and Sustainable Business and The Purpose-Driven University. Her new book, Meaningfulness, will come out with Simon & Schuster next year.

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