HomeEmployee ExperienceCultureIn this together: Building meaning and purpose during times of hardship

In this together: Building meaning and purpose during times of hardship

  • 5 Min Read

Sharath Jeevan OBE, a world-leading expert on intrinsic leadership & motivation, provides key focuses for HR to sustain meaning and purpose amongst teams in challenging times.

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Mental health has been an important topic in the mainstream agenda for some time, with 1 in 4 people in Britain experiencing a mental health issue at some point in their lives. External factors such as the cost of living crisis, soaring energy bills and a recession on the horizon all cause additional pressures and stress.

It is crucial to learn how to help employees find joy and motivation in times of economic instability. Leaders must map a compassionate way through the cost of living crisis, while also accounting for motivational changes due to mitigating circumstances. 

As a people leader, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the worst was over when you found your way out of the pandemic. The challenges that followed, including the Great Resignation and the war for talent, increased burnout and fatigue that many have experienced this year. 

Instead of respite, leaders have now been thrown into a full-blown cost-of-living crisis in one of the tightest labour markets in history. And their hands are tied: with budgets that are a bit tighter. 

Extrinsic motivators or hygiene factors such as pay bonuses and swanky office spaces are incentives rather than motivators, and can only drive us so far. Purpose should be the destination we put into our inner-GPS in our work, and our obsession with  ‘work-life balance’ in our discussion of work may have actually distracted us from the core question of purpose. Much of the disengagement and burnout that we are now seeing in modern work reflects this absence of purpose at work, as much as it does the number of hours worked. Work truly is central to our lives. Let’s make it as purposeful a part as we can. 

Refine hygiene factors and demonstrate empathetic leadership

Make it clear that you have listened and care deeply; while you can’t do everything, you are trying to be as supportive as possible. While you may have more budget constraints, how you organise work can make a big difference. 

For example, if it’s energy costs that are a pressure, you could offer more days to work from the office. And you can personalise the offer to different types of employees. Targeting those who are most susceptible to these pressures can also be helpful here, as can providing more ready access to pay to enable families with their cash flows. If childcare costs are a pressure, you can tweak your hybrid offer to allow more options for remote work or flexibility in working hours to accommodate childcare. 

Show that you are doing what you can as leaders to support the most sharply affected and vulnerable. Be explicit about the reasoning for why they are focusing on particular groups. Also be clear if there were trade-offs you had to make and why you made these decisions, and see if you can get employee input into this. Remind the team that there are no easy choices, but your focus is on those who will feel the pain the most. 

Dial-up intrinsic factors

Engage in open and candid discussions with employees that while pay and working conditions are important, they are hygiene factors. They have sharp ceiling effects and start to lose their power over time. They can also create incentives that don’t always help and serve the customer or are in the interests of long-term organisational health. 

Reigniting purpose, autonomy and mastery can help employees find deeper meaning in a professional capacity.  The pandemic has led to pressures around isolation and often loneliness, and that has also led to increasing compartmentalisation of work.

Even countries with the highest levels of work-life balance such as  Sweden are still seeing soaring rates of loneliness and isolation. ‘Clinical burnout’ now accounts for one in five cases of long-term absence from work across all age groups, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency. Swedes are working fewer hours, but if these hours are devoid of Purpose they cause stress and burnout nonetheless.

Essentially it’s the quality of the hours we work that matters, as much as the number of hours per se. As a leader, you may want to consider focusing on the following pillars to re-ignite intrinsic motivation in your work:

  • Purpose: Ensure that staff keep feeling the impact they have on the lives of customers, especially in these challenging times. Keep regular touch points, distil a real pride in areas like customer support and service, and keep sharing success stories.
  • Autonomy: This is a great chance to give staff more control over their work. Help them make faster and clearer decisions, and improve collaboration processes so staff feel empowered to make a difference.
  • Mastery: A lot can be done to improve the broader essentials of mastery, particularly around human skills such as motivating and influencing people, communication and collaboration. Try to create new peer mechanisms for learning and harness existing leaders to share their strengths.

Through meaning, purpose and commitment, work can be sustained and even accelerated in the midst of these challenging times, helping leaders address the disengagement and burnout that we are now seeing in modern work.

It is something that can be done. The key is to start in small steps, and to engage your employees in the process of what’s created. We’re all likely to work over 90,000 hours over our lifetimes so this is likely to be an important economic and moral prize – to make work motivating and fulfilling again. 


Sharath Jeevan OBE is a world-leading expert on Intrinsic Leadership & Motivation, and the Founder & Executive Chairman of Intrinsic Labs. Supporting organisations and leaders all around the world to solve deep motivational challenges, Sharath has worked with governments, leading universities and high-profile corporations, from L’Oreal to the London School of Economics. He is the author of ground-breaking book “Intrinsic” and was awarded an OBE in the 2022 Queen’s New Year’s Honours for founding and leading STiR Education, arguably the world’s largest intrinsic motivation initiative. 

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