A New Sense of Purpose to Your Job

Healthcare employees are on the front lines, but workers in other fields are experiencing a higher self-value now too, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” and co-developer of Goleman EI online learning platform, 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. 

As COVID-19 sweeps through our communities, the world is on edge. Our local and national economies are suffering; our elderly are at grave risk; and millions of children are out of school, their parents left trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. In the United States, we expect the coming weeks to be increasingly difficult.

How does purpose figure into this world-wide state of fear and uncertainty?

Some suggest purpose must take the back burner now that so many organizations are scrambling just to stay alive. Yet others might say that purpose is the only real thing keeping this world together.

Evidence for the power of purpose comes from Italy, where roughly 5,000 health workers have been infected by the coronavirus. Those health workers persisted in trying to help virus-stricken patients despite the risk to themselves.

One of the oldest known statements of purpose might be the Hippocratic Oath. Written between the fifth and third centuries BC and once recited by all newly certified doctors, the original starts something like this: “I will soothe the pain of anyone who needs my art.... I will offer those who suffer all my attention, my science, and my love.”

While the oath has been tweaked, modernized, and in some cases, entirely abandoned over the years, the principles set forth in the original have guided the ethical standards upheld by the entire field of medicine. Our world may never have been more grateful for its purpose-driven healthcare workers—those on the front lines of this epidemic who are embracing their mission at the very cost of their lives. Even as personal protective equipment dwindles, healthcare professionals around the world have mobilized around a sense of meaning, selflessly offering their “attention,” “science,” and “love.”

One legendary example of this commitment is Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who first alerted his colleagues to the possible outbreak of COVID-19 in December. Even after he was punished for telling the truth, Li returned to work and continued to treat affected patients. Li died from the virus on February 7th, at the age of 33.

The findings on purpose and engagement aren’t new. A report published in the Harvard Business Review showed that 9 out of 10 employees would be willing to trade a significant percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work. While people in service-oriented professions, such as medicine, education, and social work, reported higher levels of workplace meaning than did administrative support and transportation workers, we might find that, in the age of coronavirus, the tides will begin to change.

Essential retailers like groceries are hiring thousands and upping their hourly wages. One of these is the grocery chain Price Chopper; the vice president of human resources, Mike Miller, said that it is their “hope that this hiring opportunity provides relief to many for the sake of serving many more within our communities,” and that the company looks “forward to extending our family and sharing our sense of purpose, as we weather these challenging times.”

Then there are all of the dedicated truck drivers in the world, racking up the mileage to keep our homes supplied. “This is the heart of America, because, without the trucks, you can’t get the necessities that you need to run your household and your business,” trucker Thomas McHenry told a local news channel. Fellow driver Joe Kelly echoed a similar sentiment: “Many truck drivers out here are very patriotic. It is that insight and that personality that gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of duty.”

While struggling companies might give a lower priority to their sense of purpose for the time being, one could make the case for embracing it even more strongly. We are moving into a new age. As we cross this abyss, we might recognize the role of purpose in keeping this ship afloat.