July 3, 2013

The restorative power of meaning

In an article in the Time magazine (26 June ed), Joe Klein writes poignantly about how regaining a sense of purpose through public service is helping US military veterans and returning troops to find their way again.  Some of these men and women suffer from severe PTSD, others are simply struggling to cope with the transition from being part of an intense brother-and sisterhood, putting their lives on the line for something bigger than themselves, to the "passive couch-potato-hood" of "normal life".  In the US, several organisations and groups (like The Mission Continues that is mentioned in the article),  have started programs where army veterans can volunteer their time, sometimes for as long as 6 months, to public service.  Their acts of service include assisting with clean-up operations after natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy or the more recent Oklahoma Tornadoes as well as other volunteer activities like teaching.

Klein describes how these returning troops can be completely incapacitated and even driven to suicide by the sudden loss of a sense of purpose and meaning.  This loss often leads to a crisis of identity and value, very similar to that faced by elderly people who question their value to society in light of declining physical ability.  In the article, an interesting study conducted by Ohio State University is cited.  Researchers tasked two groups of elderly people to make gift baskets.  One group was told that the baskets were for themselves, the other that the baskets were gifts for homeless people in their area.  The study found that the second group experienced much more psychological well-being and a sense of satisfaction than the first group.  "Service enabled them to find their value outside of their own suffering".  This principle links directly to the work of Viktor Frankl in the concentration camps during the holocaust.   Serving others can give a person a profound sense of value, meaning, and purpose even in the direst of circumstances.

I found this article really profound for many reasons. One is the simplicity of the solution (providing a renewed sense of meaning and purpose) for a condition many view as highly complicated (PTSD).   I also think that many more people suffer from a profound loss of meaning and a sense of value and purpose.  You don't have to fight in a war or experience trauma to question your value.  Think for example about executives who have spent their lives, sometimes offered up their families and health to climb the corporate ladder.  Often when they reach the top, they find that they are still unfulfilled, with no idea where to go from there.  Or people who have spent their lives building careers, coming to retirement and suddenly not knowing who they are anymore.  Women who had to take a time out from their careers to raise a family, and suddenly find themselves at loose ends when their children get older.  I can go on and on ...

What becomes clear is that without a sense of meaning and purpose, people lose their connection to self and to others.  They disconnect ... check out, become actively disengaged.  A recent Gallup report on the state of the US workforce found that only 30% of American employees feel engaged in their work, 51% are not engaged and 19% are actively disengaged.

Gallup’s definition of engagement is as follows:

  • Engagement - employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company; they also help drive innovation.
  • Not engaged - employees are essentially “checked out” and sleep-walking through their workday.
  • Actively disengaged - employees are unhappy at work and acting out their unhappiness.

In a recently published Forbes article, Jacob Morgan, author of Amazon best-selling book, The Collaborative Organization, describes this as a “real-life employee zombie situation”.  This represents hugely untapped potential which is costing US companies in the order of $450-$550 billion annually.  I doubt that the situation looks much different in other countries - in South Africa, for example, many large organisations struggle with employee engagement, and engagement surveys like the Barrett typically report negative entropy scores.

Authors like Dan Ariely have written extensively on the need for meaningful work, something I wrote about here.  In response to this, there has been an increase in focus on initiatives like corporate volunteering.  In a 2011 report, Deloitte found a strong link between frequent participation in corporate volunteering activities and positive movement on several engagement measures as well as a positive perception of the corporate culture.  This is especially true of Millenials.

I have long believed that a sense of meaning and purpose is a core need of every human being, especially in their work life.  Maslow's hierarchy states that the highest level of human need is self actualisation, Frankl believed that finding meaning and self-transcendence should be the pinnacle of the hierarchy.  Leaders in the corporate world struggling with disengaged workforces would do well to make a concerted effort to help their people rediscover a sense of meaning in the workplace.

2 comments on “The restorative power of meaning”

  1. Sonja i found this so moving and was impressed with the depth of your knowledge. You have probably heard of the Wounded Warrior program + also William Tressider, a distinguished soldier + Stanford grad has started a consulting firm, using the talents of ex-soldiers. I have been inspired in watching his journey, having met him at Renaissance Weekend

    1. Hi Kare, thank you so much for your positive feedback. The topic of meaning is something that I feel really passionate about. It really stirs me that so many people are going through life much like zombies - breathing, but not really alive. I haven't heard of the Wounded Warrior program, I'll definitely check it out!

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