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Paul Barrett

Bank Workers Charity

Head of Wellbeing

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Why a strong sense of purpose is good for business

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Purpose has been defined as “a stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”[1]

For most of us, purpose in life has its own very personal significance but usually also involves a sense of our goals contributing something positive to others in society and it is this that gives our actions, and our lives, much of their meaning.

If we see this in our personal lives, how does it manifest itself in the workplace?

Whatever level of work people do, it is vital that they feel that it is meaningful and, ultimately, worth their while. Nobody enjoys working at what are seemingly pointless tasks day after day. That’s why a strong sense of purpose is central to our psychological wellbeing: it keeps us motivated, encourages us to meet challenges head-on and acts as a buffer against excessive pressure and stress.

People who attribute meaning to their work are also less susceptible to suffering stress-related illnesses – depression, anxiety, high blood pressure – and  are therefore less prone to sickness absence. When you consider that absenteeism alone racks up an economic cost of £29bn each year, it’s clear that purpose is crucial for both individual and organisational health. This is evident across all industries, none more so than in the banking sector.

The latest research led by The Bank On Your People Partnership draws on over 1,300 employee responses from three leading UK banks to better understand the links between purpose, performance and the current state of wellbeing in the banking industry. The Partnership – comprising of  wellbeing experts Robertson Cooper and my employer Bank Workers Charity – exists to support the lives of bank workers, both in and out of work, and to foster a working environment in which sustainable behaviour and engagement can thrive.

Our findings show that up to 40% of bank worker commitment to, and satisfaction with, their organisation can be explained by a strong sense of purpose. As banks look to make their mark  in a renewed, values-led industry, their success depends on enabling staff at all organisational levels to feel part of that mission.

Prof Sir Cary Cooper, founder of Robertson Cooper and distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, explains that: “Purpose is vital for individual performance and that’s about being connected to the impact of your work and the difference that it can make. For bank workers in retail branches, for example, that could mean developing close links in the local community – whatever the role, banks should be asking, ‘How do we create those meaningful connections for our employees?”

Clarity of role is particularly important here because if employees  don’t understand their role, how can they be expected to understand the ways in which they contribute to the overall goals of the organisation?

If this is the case they will lack both confidence and sense of purpose. Implicitly, such a disconnect will make it very hard for individuals to appreciate how the wider goals and values of the organisation sit with their own.

We know from a number of studies that many people want their employer to be making a contribution at some level to the greater wellbeing of society. Research among baby boomers and millennials has found that both groups rank making a contribution to society over pay as a criteria in choosing a job.

A study of just under 8,000 millennials in the United States found that, when launching their careers, they identified with organisations that highlighted making a social contribution as a key organisational goal in preference to those that emphasised profit.

This is a particularly important lesson for the banking sector, whose employees have, in recent years been exposed to a steady stream of negative media coverage of their industry. The resulting dissonance between what employees believed banks to stand for and how the public came to perceive them will undoubtedly have been damaging.

Banks are making great efforts to rebuild public confidence, to restore their links to the wider community and to reconnect with their employees in order to re-establish a sense of shared purpose. Their continued progress in this will have a determining influence on their future performance and success.

[1] Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K. C. (2003). The development of  purpose during adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3), 119–128

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Paul Barrett

Head of Wellbeing

Read more from Paul Barrett
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