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How can work affect our sense of purpose?


Feeling that life has meaning and purpose, that the things we do are worthwhile, is a key driver of personal wellbeing. This can be found in many aspects of life; work is one of the main sources of it for many people.

The response to COVID-19 has left many people unemployed and furloughed. Unemployment is one of the damaging factors affecting personal wellbeing. Its damaging impact goes well beyond the effects of reduced income, especially for male and young workers.

When asked whether if life is ‘worthwhile’, almost 10% of unemployed people reported a low level (0-4 on a 11 point scale), compared with just over 2% in the employed population*. 

Dr Brendan Burchell from Cambridge University, explains the importance of work, beyond income: “As social scientists have found repeatedly, in different countries and different demographic groups, the loss of the wage only explains a small fraction of the very large mental health deficit associated with unemployment and economic inactivity.”

Time structure, enforced activity, social contact, collective purpose, status and identity are other crucial experiences that we get from paid employment. All of these functions have been found to relate closely to wellbeing.

Taking evidence-informed action

Have you talked through all alternative working options with staff? 
While many people may not be able to afford the reduction of income, some employees may prefer to choose reduced working hours rather than furlough. In the UK, the evidence suggests that increasing individuals’ hours of work from zero to just eight hours a week provides a large boost to their mental health.

Are you measuring and maintaining purpose for employees?
For those still in employment, it’s important to recognise the importance of achieving a sense of ‘purpose’ from work. A high quality job is one that gives us a sense of personal purpose and of our wider value to others. Our research** shows that people who feel their job is not useful have a significantly lower level of mental health than those who feel that are doing useful work, and below the national average.

Our wellbeing snapshot survey from last week gives you tried and tested questions, including asking people how worthwhile they feel their life is. We now have a benchmark report for you to compare your results with national averages (although pre-COVID).

There are many things employers can do to ensure that the job that is kept continues to be a good job, a source of purpose and wellbeing, such us giving your employees opportunities to use their skills, train and have more control over their tasks, or ensure good quality management and healthy workplace relationships are in place. 

In the long-term, investing in employee wellbeing through continued employment and improved job quality can bring better performance, reduced costs and higher creativity.

Continue reading our series to know more about how we can look after these drivers of workplace wellbeing and purpose.

*2012-2015 data. ONS.

** Soffia M, Wood AJ & Burchell B (in press). 'Alienation isn't Bullshit: An Empirical Critique of Graeber's Theory of BS Jobs' (under revision, Journal of Work, Employment and Society): Workers who feel that their job is not useful report mental health (M=49.3, SD=28.3) significantly lower than those who feel that are doing useful work (M = 64.5, SD = 21.7), and below the national average (M = 63.7, SD = 22.3) as measured by the WHO-5 index.

Wellbeing benchmark data
Below are some of the ways the What Works Centre for Wellbeing can support you.

How we can support you

Support

If you would like tailored help to measure your results, get in touch.

Contact us>>

Benchmark

Find out how other people in the UK respond to our wellbeing snapshot survey questions with these benchmarks.
Read more>>

Measure

We will soon be launching a comprehensive Workplace Wellbeing Index. You will be the first to find out about it when it's ready.

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