Purpose Puts Burnout on the Back Burner

Helping employees “live their purpose” may do more to rejuvenate stressed employees than giving them more days off, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

Earlier this summer, Mozilla, producer of the Firefox Web browser, shut down for a five day “Wellness Week” in advance of the July 4th weekend. This is in addition to their new monthly “Wellness Days”— twelve work-free Fridays, one a month, through 2021.

Mozilla is one of many companies aiming to address a growing issue in the workplace: stress and its endpoint, burnout. A poll conducted in March showed that around 40% of Americans said they felt burned out over the past year.

Even though almost half of Mozilla’s workforce was remote before the pandemic, Mardi Douglass, the company’s senior director of culture and engagement, says the advantage didn’t spare the organization and its employees from suffering.

Kids were home from school and “going to the grocery store was a major ordeal,” she said in an interview, “So all those things, despite that advantage, still really weighed on people.”

According to Christina Maslach, the Berkeley psychologist who did some of the original research on stress and burnout, it occurs when three things are present at the same time: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Unlike acute moments of anxiety, it is the result of a prolonged exposure to stress, an experience that leaves us depleted, cynical or hostile towards our job, and down on our ability to perform.

Each of us, though, can take steps to counter the toll of stress. I’ve just co-developed a stress inventory that lets you evaluate the sources and amount of stress in your life, as well as your sources of pleasure and recuperation. (To be notified about the release, subscribe to Key Step Media’s newsletter.) This tool aims to help you find a better balance.

Then there’s what organizations can do. As Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford University, has warned, “Employers can’t expect employees to just pretend like we didn’t just live through a social catastrophe — especially as that catastrophe continues to unfold around the world.

This catastrophe is one reason so many organizations, like Mozilla, have been implementing more time off. LinkedIn shut down for a week in April. Shopify instituted “Rest & Refuel Fridays” July through August. Fidelity gave all US full-time and part-time employees an additional five paid “relief days” for unexpected events. Marriott International gave non-hotel staffers three paid days off on the Fridays before Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day. Bumble, a dating app company, shut down for a week in late June.

But is a week off here or a work-free Friday there enough to re-engage the workforce? What else should companies do to support employee wellbeing?

One solution is to strengthen the connection between employees and a sense of purpose. Research conducted during the pandemic found that people who say they are “living their purpose” report levels of wellbeing five times higher than those who say they aren’t. Moreover, those who are driven by a sense of purpose are four times more likely to be highly engaged.

If this year has taught employers anything, it’s that they cannot take the health and motivation of their employees for granted.  Chronic stress poses a very real threat to the workforce and by proxy, to the bottom line.

While rest is important to the cultivation of a healthy and productive workforce, time off is only part of the equation. Given what we know about the connection between purpose and wellbeing, organizations would be remiss not to take purpose seriously and make it a core part of their strategy. 

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.