Individual purpose in times of crisis

In these stressful, surreal times, it’s understandable for CEOs to fixate on urgent corporate priorities at the expense of more intangible, personal considerations. How important is getting your people to think about their “purpose in life” right now when you’re worried about their well-being—not to mention corporate survival?

It’s more important than you think. During times of crisis, individual purpose can be a guidepost that helps people face up to uncertainties and navigate them better, and thus mitigate the damaging effects of long-term stress. People who have a strong sense of purpose tend to be more resilient and exhibit better recovery from negative events. 1 Indeed, our research conducted during the pandemic finds that when comparing people who say they are “living their purpose” at work with those who say they aren’t, the former report levels of well-being that are five times higher than the latter. Moreover, those in the former group are four times more likely to report higher engagement levels.

Purposeful people also live longer and healthier lives. One longitudinal study found that a single standard deviation increase in purpose decreased the risk of dying over the next decade by 15 percent—a finding that held regardless of the age at which people identified their purpose. Similarly, the Rush Memory and Aging project, which began in 1997, finds that when comparing patients who say they have a sense of purpose with those who say they don’t, the former are:

  • 2.5 times more likely to be free of dementia;
  • 22 percent less likely to exhibit risk factors for stroke;
  • 52 percent less likely to have experienced a stroke.

And if this wasn’t enough, individual purpose benefits organizations, too. Purpose can be an important contributor to employee experience, which in turn is linked to higher levels of employee engagement, stronger organizational commitment, and increased feelings of well-being. People who find their individual purpose congruent with their jobs tend to get more meaning from their roles, making them more productive and more likely to outperform their peers. Our own research finds a positive correlation between the purposefulness of employees and their company’s EBITDA margin.

Source: McKinsey.