The case for motivation: What’s sapping it, what will bring it back

How many of us have ever felt anxiety, sadness and stress on a Sunday night, or lamented about having a case of the Monday blues? If you are nodding along as you read this, you are not alone.


The reality is that while people are still showing up for work in offices and factories across the world – they increasingly don’t really want to.

Studies into the topic suggest that something has gone terribly wrong with people’s motivation to work all around the world. People still have the drive to work hard, but much of this drive has become sapped inside corporate hallways and factory walls.

The heart of the problem centres on several very topical factors, from rapid tech disruptions to outmoded corporate structures to a disturbing rise in employee stress.

The vicious cycle of showing up stressed out and unmotivated for work and performing poorly has vast implications on not only the individual’s but also organisations’ ability to thrive, and could go some way towards explaining Singapore’s continued struggle to increase productivity levels.

By understanding what’s sapping workforce motivation and what will bring it back, individuals, leaders, and organisations can harness their potential to drive themselves and succeed in today’s rapidly evolving digital age.

The motivation killer: stress

Experts agree that stress hinders the potential for innovativeness and adaptability by clogging up our working memory, the capacity for actively holding something in mind to work on. This impedes our capacity for high-level thinking such as abstract reasoning, thought analysis, planning, and decision making.

Further, stress arouses our sympathetic nervous system, giving rise to feelings of nervousness, anxiety, and worry, hindering our ability to think clearly, stay open and aware, and maintain a stable and healthy attitude to work.

Everywhere in the world, surveys show a consistent rise in workplace stress. Indeed, our analysis of a major global employee survey covering almost 50 countries reveals that employee stress has risen nearly 20 percent in three decades. According to another recent survey, the top two triggers for stress at the workplace were the prospect of losing one’s job to artificial intelligence (AI) and the pressure to learn new skills because of automation and business disruption.

The mounting stress has unintended, and ironic, consequences. After all, technology has always offered the great promise of removing mindless tasks to free up human minds and improve productivity overall. However, as people reach their stress threshold, their ability to cope with ongoing change, transformation, and disruption is impaired.

In the end, we find ourselves with a workforce suffering intellectual and emotional paralysis brought on by tech-induced stress, undermining motivation as well as the ability to adapt.

Bringing it back: A roadmap to self-motivation

As the pace of change only increases, the level of workplace stress is not going to recede, so individuals must learn to cope, or better yet thrive, under a new management paradigm.

Employees should practice ways to manage stress, both proactively and reactively. Proactively, this starts with being mindful of stress triggers. Notice causes of stress in the workplace, then take time to pause before responding.

Practice mindfulness to promote greater awareness of yourself and your context. This also means finding ways to reinvent oneself constantly. Initiatives like SkillsFuture, for example, help to provide Singaporean workers with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout their careers.

Employees should also try to work on fuelling their intrinsic motivation by seeking out work and responsibilities that fulfil their intrinsic needs: autonomy (personal accountability), competence (capability and efficacy), and purpose (personal identity).

When you feel intrinsically motivated, you are likely to find reward in the work itself, while if you are primarily extrinsically motivated, it is far more likely that you will tend to do the minimum required to get the reward or to avoid getting fired.

According to Korn Ferry’s global employee opinion database, 76 percent of employees who feel intrinsically motivated exceed performance expectations, compared to 60 percent of those who feel extrinsically motivated.

[bctt tweet="According to Korn Ferry’s global employee opinion database, 76% of employees who feel intrinsically motivated exceed performance expectations, compared to 60% of those who feel extrinsically motivated." username="Korn_Ferry"]

This self-generated aspiration becomes both an inspiration and a guide for self-development. It also provides a broader perspective regarding purpose, which serves to buffer or make day-to-day stresses more meaningful or worthwhile in the pursuit of broader goals.

As individuals seek to fuel their intrinsic motivations, organisations too should play an active role in creating the right conditions for employees to become entrepreneurial, proactive, and risk-taking.

Singapore Airlines (SIA), for example, spends $100 million a year on employee training, giving its staff a wide range of authority to keep travellers happy. The airline offers rotations through different divisions of the company to keep employees interested and challenged. The result: cabin crews stay on the job an average of 10 years, while ground crews stay with the airline for more than 20.

Without a motivated workforce, both individuals and organisations are unlikely to reach their full potential. Fortunately, the solutions to today’s troubling decline in motivation is within our reach. It might seem daunting at first but the positive reinforcement of work and responsibilities that challenge and help you grow will also aid you in connecting with your core purpose and ultimately, bring back your motivation.