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Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave

If the tumult of 2022 has prompted your organization or leadership team to reconsider people priorities such as employee well-being, resilience, or purpose, then you’re in good company.

Your employees are reconsidering you, too.

Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees we surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And nearly 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 reevaluating work.

Such findings have implications for your company’s talent-management strategy and its bottom line. People who live their purpose at work are more productive than people who don’t. They are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at the company. Moreover, when employees feel that their purpose is aligned with the organization’s purpose, the benefits expand to include stronger employee engagement, heightened loyalty, and a greater willingness to recommend the company to others.


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Nonetheless, if you’re like most senior executives, you haven’t given the individual purpose of your employees much thought. The topic is intensely personal, potentially inaccessible to employers, and seemingly as uncomfortable to discuss as it is to actively encourage.

Despite these challenges, our research found that 70 percent of employees said that their sense of purpose is defined by their work. So, like it or not, as a company leader you play an important part in helping your employees find their purpose and live it. And you have your work cut out: our survey also found disparities in how frontline employees and other groups feel supported—or thwarted—in living their purpose at work.

Understanding purpose at work

To understand the challenge, we surveyed more than a thousand US employees about individual purpose and the work and life outcomes associated with it.1 The survey is part of an ongoing McKinsey research effort to better understand the role of purpose in organizations.

Insights to Impact: It's 2 a.m., do you know what your purpose is?McKinsey partner Naina Dhingra describes key insights from this article.

Before exploring the findings, though, it’s useful to consider the context in which individual purpose operates at work, as well as the unique challenges it presents for employers. Individual purpose can be thought of as an enduring, overarching sense of what matters in a person’s life; people experience purposefulness when striving toward something significant and meaningful to them.

By contrast, if another person finds their work very purposeful, it will be larger. Intuitively, then, the size of the middle circle represents the portion of one’s purpose that is accessible by work—and also how much purpose employees want from their work—and it may grow or shrink. Employers should view this middle circle as a target they strive to understand and meet. They should influence the expansion of this circle if they can.

The innermost circle (purpose from the organization) depicts the company’s means of influence; it’s the only aspect of purpose that organizations control. How so? By establishing a corporate purpose that considers the company’s role and contribution to society, and by providing employees with meaningful ways to reflect on the company’s efforts and their impact. Companies can also exert influence by improving the underlying health of the organization and its culture, bolstering inclusiveness and the employee experience, and changing the work itself.

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