It's no secret that much of Corporate America is stressed — and not just because of the difficult economy. While even the White House has weighed in on the need for better work-life balance and the economic benefits of workplace flexibility, there's a much larger issue at stake here than how much flextime companies offer.
The real issue is not about forcing people to compartmentalize their lives at work, at home, and in their communities but rather how to keep people energized and engaged in all aspects of their lives. In our research over the past four years, my colleagues and I have found that great leaders and great companies recognize that people are at their best when they are able to bring their whole selves to the job and can connect what they do at work to a meaningful larger purpose.
Dick Gochnauer, CEO of business products wholesaler United Stationers, describes it this way: "If you are working for a company and you can find at least a key part of your life's purpose in your work, you're the luckiest person on earth. Because the people that find the most joy in life are those who have a purpose, and are fulfilling that purpose. And if you can do that during your day job rather than having to say, 'It's a day job, I am just making money, and I find purpose outside of work' … it is very, very powerful."
Finding a sense of purpose at work is powerful because it allows people to go beyond balancing work and everything else to integrating what they do at work with their lives as a whole. In this way, the parts become mutually supportive, rather than a zero-sum game. People feel empowered when they can bring work into their life, sharing their work with family and friends, and can bring their full lives and passions into their work.
Bringing work into life
Our interviews with Gochnauer and about 30 other CEOs suggest that having a larger purpose in work not only inspires individuals but also those around them. These leaders strive to integrate their decisions and actions with their values and beliefs. And they rely on family, friends, and trusted colleagues to help them stay centered and maintain their integrity.
For example, Leif Johansson, recently retired CEO of the Volvo Group, uses what he calls the "kitchen table test" to measure how he is doing: At breakfast with his family on Saturday mornings, he asks himself, "How easy is it to explain what I have accomplished this week and the decisions I have made? Does my family get it? Does what I say make them proud? Does it make me proud to tell them about it?"
Pride in the company that extends beyond employees to their families came up in our discussions at United Stationers as well. The company defines its purpose as "enabling our partners to succeed" -- with "partners" including employees as well as customers, suppliers, and local communities. Many employees connect to this shared purpose by participating in the United Stationers Foundation's backpack program, which benefits elementary school children who could not otherwise afford school supplies. Employees' children help to fill the backpacks and, in the process, gain a deeper understanding of what their parents do all day.