With more than a quarter of the world’s workers actively seeking new roles, it’s little wonder that employers are pulling out all the stops to retain quality talent. Gym memberships, paid parental leave and flexible or remote working options are no longer ‘nice-to-haves’ but basic expectations of employees who know their worth.

Yet a growing body of research suggests there’s a far simpler (and more effective) way to reduce attrition. “In the past, we would talk about job satisfaction; today we talk about purpose and meaning,” says Dr Lindsay McMillan, Managing Director of Australian workplace research firm Reventure. “Given that we’re at work more than any other part of our life, people are very conscious that it creates some sense of intrinsic value and worth inside them.”

In 2016, McMillan led a review of the Australian workforce, which found that 72% of employees were looking for purpose and meaning in their work – with younger respondents, in particular, deeming it a top priority. “We’ve got this incredible churn factor within work today,” says McMillan. “If millennials and younger generations feel they’re not getting value out of their work personally, they’ll just leave.”

Meaningful work

Numerous studies support these findings. One survey by WorkHuman revealed the number-one reason employees remained with their company was that they found the work meaningful. In another by Calling Brands, respondents claimed that, aside from pay and benefits, ‘deeper purpose’ is the most significant factor when considering a new job.

Purpose-focused companies don’t just appeal to employees; according to Deloitte research, ‘mission-driven’ organisations have 30% higher levels of innovation and tend to be first or second in their market segment. Meanwhile, a BetterUp study estimates that raising an employee’s experience from average to highly meaningful generates an extra US$9,078 in labour output per year.

There’s also evidence to suggest that a sense of purpose influences wellbeing – improving various health indicators, such as stress, adaptive coping and self-care. While such outcomes are beneficial to workers at any level of an organisation, they’re indispensable to leaders, says executive coach and co-author of the ‘Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey’, Audrey McGibbon.

“When leaders are satisfied and happy, it correlates not only with enhanced personal performance, but also enhanced business performance,” she explains. “High levels of meaning and purpose in their roles can help them withstand a lot of stress factors: long hours, sacrificed sleep and exercise… it is all so much more tolerable in the short- to medium-term when they feel what they’re doing is important.”

Work with purpose

Not-for-profits and other socially driven brands may have something of a free kick in the purpose stakes, but McMillan believes any business can follow suit as long as employees are able to identify the impact of – and are recognised for – their efforts. “There’s something deep within us all whereby we’re created to feel that we have something valuable to contribute,” he says. “Workers generally require something that grounds them; that gives them a sense of their role adding meaning to the bigger narrative of the organisation.”

The most effective way to satisfy this intrinsically human need, McMillan continues, is to develop an environment that embraces social connection and positive reinforcement. “The new generation of CEO needs to take the time to walk among their people and genuinely and authentically tell them the value and contribution that they make,” he says. “We have to recapture some of the value of what it means to be human.”

Work with purpose
Rachael Powell, Xero's Chief Customer, People and Marketing Officer

The right culture

At Xero, the global small business platform, team members are frequently reminded of the role they play in the brand’s overarching mission – that is, to make life better for people in small business. This comes about, in large part, through regular interactions between employees and customers; a strategy that forges a “community of champions”, says Rachael Powell, Xero’s Chief Customer, People and Marketing Officer, while simultaneously allowing team members to witness the impact of their work. “You’ve got this beautiful human ripple effect that starts with our purpose at the core, and then resonates out to our own people, then to our accountants and bookkeepers, and then out to the small business community,” she says. “We’re working collectively to raise the profile of the success of the small business economy.”

“If millennials and younger generations feel they’re not getting value out of their work personally, they’ll just leave.” – Lindsay McMillan

Employee recognition is likewise deeply ingrained within Xero’s culture. As part of the Xero Praise program, staff distribute ‘values cards’ to co-workers to thank or congratulate them for specific accomplishments. Success is rewarded with gifts, accolades at the annual Global Praise Awards, and opportunities to develop skills and experiences. As Powell explains: “It is part of our culture to be human and call out people for jobs well done – when they’re living our values, or going above and beyond.”

Hiring talent that are passionate about small business and letting them play to their strengths is also critical. “If you focus on strengths, you’re going to get more out of people and they’re going to be happier at what they do,” says Powell.

McGibbon agrees, adding that other workplaces could benefit from a similar approach to strength spotting and job crafting. “From the very top to the very bottom of the organisation, people can identify their energy drainers and redesign their role so that it plays to their strengths and allows them to feel fully utilised,” she says.

“We also encourage people to ask themselves whether the work they’re doing feels valuable, whether it’s interesting and whether they feel it’s making a difference,” McGibbon continues. “In this crazy world, it’s important to press the pause button for long enough to consider the extent to which the job you’re doing holds meaning.”