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Building dignity and purpose to create greater performance and wellbeing

A prescription for business leaders during the pandemic

By John M. Bremen , Amy DeVylder Levanat , Vic Strecher and Eric Zimmerman | October 22, 2020

A pandemic, economic volatility and unimaginable pressures are accelerating a re-think of what it takes to build dignity and purpose and work.
Talent|Total Rewards|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

Never has the concept of organizational purpose been so well understood, the importance of wellbeing so crucial or the need for respect so great. This paper explores the role of these attributes at a time of disruption and uncertainty for many U.S. employees, their correlation to dignity (a key driver of human performance), and the role employers can play in creating cultures where all employees can prosper and thrive.

Late in 2019, during “pre-pandemic times,” workplace dignity was found to be a key component of a healthy company culture — promoting self-respect, pride and self-worth; influencing an organization’s ability to foster wellbeing; and driving productivity and sustainable business results. At the time, research from Willis Towers Watson found that almost three-quarters of employers (70%) recognized that workplace dignity was important to their current success, and nearly all employer respondents (94%) said workplace dignity would be important to their success in the next three years.

Fast-forward to September 2020 (“12 months and 20 years later,” according to one colleague), when a study conducted by Kumanu and The Harris Poll revealed staggering statistics about U.S.-based employees during the pandemic:

  • 34% screen positive for depression.
  • 65% show signs of anxiety disorder.
  • 57% are not fully engaged in their work.
  • 69% lack a strong sense of purpose in their work.
  • 65% lack a strong sense of purpose in their life.

Compared with pre-pandemic levels, these statistics are alarming. And the rapid growth in risks related to social determinants of health (SDOH) for workers — food, housing, financial — compound these issues. The Kumanu/Harris survey found that more than one-third of full-time employees report these insecurities. As in other studies, this survey also finds these insecurities to be disproportionately higher among Blacks and Hispanics. Moreover, those facing these issues are three times more likely to show signs of depression.

But there is some hopeful news. Kumanu and Harris also found that full-time U.S. employees with a stronger sense of purpose in their work are:

  • 27% less likely to be depressed.
  • 23% less likely to have anxiety disorder.
  • Six times likelier to be engaged in their work.

Individual purpose is a central, self-organizing life aim that’s been shown in numerous studies to improve resilience, reduce defensiveness to change and engage greater focus on what matters most — both at work and in life. At a physiological level, multiple studies demonstrate that those with a strong sense of purpose produce more antibodies, mount stronger antiviral responses, have less pro-inflammatory cell production, and are shielded from toxic biological effects of social isolation (all of which come in handy right now).

Individual purpose is a self-organizing life aim shown to improve resilience, reduce defensiveness to change and engage focus on what matters most.

Where is individual purpose found? As Yale School of Management’s Amy Wrzesniewski’s research demonstrates, “Increasing emphasis is placed on the importance of work as a source of fulfillment, meaning and purpose in life today, as individuals spend more time at work and change jobs more often and readily than in the past.” There is the classic story of a custodian at NASA who, when asked by John F. Kennedy what he did, replied that he was putting a man on the moon. This type of “job crafting” — creating purpose and meaning from your job — improves engagement at work and is essential for a person to feel respect and dignity in their work environment.

The Kumanu/Harris survey also found that, together, dignity and purpose have a synergistic effect: When work purpose and dignity at work are both high, employees are 15 times likelier to be engaged. This group also is far less likely to show signs of depression.

Impact of purpose and dignity on engagement in work (% engaged)

The increase in percent of engagement when both work purpose and dignity at work are high
Dignity at work
Low High
High work purpose 29% 73%
Low work purpose 5% 30%

Impact of purpose and dignity on depression (PHQ-2; % depressed)

The decrease in percent of depression when both work purpose and dignity at work are high
Dignity at work
Low High
High work purpose 36% 29%
Low work purpose 44% 37%

Pre-pandemic, employers recognized that dignity correlated to lower stress; improved wellbeing; and higher engagement, productivity and business performance, according to Willis Towers Watson research. While employers learned that dignity is linked to financial outcomes, they were quick to realize it also played a key role in shaping the way employees experienced the organization and its importance to the organizational culture overall.

The pressures on corporate leaders today are unlike any they have experienced in recent memory. A global pandemic, new work-from-home realities, childcare and eldercare pressures, financial insecurities, and social and racial justice movements are accelerating a re-think of what it takes to create an emotionally well, engaged, high-performing workforce.

How can leaders build dignity and purpose in the current environment?

Nine action steps foster greater dignity at (respect), in (purpose) and from (wellbeing) work, and each correlate with engagement and business outcomes.

  1. 01

    Drive a culture of dignity from the top (as part of a healthy company culture)

    Consider how dignity shows up (or doesn’t) in your organization — particularly through company values, leadership behaviors, and existing programs and practices. Acknowledge that dignity needs to be a tangible part of the way employees experience the organization today. Ensure an inclusive environment (virtual and onsite) of respect and equity where:

    • Employees feel safe to speak up.
    • Senior leaders have a sincere interest in employee physical, financial, emotional and social wellbeing.
    • Physical and psychological safety prevail.

    Leaders are instrumental in driving this culture of dignity through their behaviors and actions. Those who lead with respect, purpose and wellbeing, as well as transparency and compassion, drive differentiated levels of performance.

  2. 02

    Recognize the diverse and changing needs of your workforce in the new world of work

    Think about the differences between pre-pandemic work and today (i.e., where, when and how work gets done). Consider the challenges imposed on employees today (e.g., feeling overwhelmed by changing information, stress and anxiety about COVID-19, safety, fear, caregiving from afar, managing work while caregiving, childcare, loneliness, guilt, helplessness, grief, uncertainty, ongoing social unrest).

    Demonstrating dignity at, in and from work and treating employees with respect and equity now includes promoting autonomy and offering flexible work arrangements to provide employees a choice in when and where work gets done. It also includes ensuring a safe work environment with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for onsite workers and recognizing employees who have leaned in to support team members and peers. And it means realizing the impact that benefits, pay and career opportunities have on millions of employees who fear facing financial insecurities as well as health risks, anxiety, depression, isolation and hardship.

    Employers who remain vigilant amid the ongoing “triple pandemic” of health, economic and social disruption — as well as their potential implications on increasing and diverse employee needs — will be better positioned to support employees where they are.

  3. 03

    Foster both individual and company purpose

    In today’s environment, start with your people’s purpose and help them become the best versions of themselves. Unpacking purpose a bit further, recognize that not all purposes are primarily aligned to the company purpose. Organizations that want to build a stronger sense of dignity are well served to look at the reasons each employee is working at the organization (for example, the team they work with, personal advancement or growth, making life better for people) and how these reasons might be aligned with the organization’s purpose. An employee’s dignity at work includes the feeling that those they work with (and especially their direct supervisor) understand and support them in aligning with their purpose.

    In purpose-activation work with organizations, the focus is on helping companies bring out the best in their people through an understanding of their intrinsic motives rather than solely getting people to align with company purpose. This is accomplished by helping them build a sense of purpose and then live that purpose — becoming purposeful — each day. Leaders learn to model purpose, empower others to find and live with greater purpose by setting purposeful intention each day (i.e., developing their purpose “muscle”), build connection to common purpose across teams, and find greater purpose in work.

  4. 04

    Demonstrate the link between a healthy company and healthy employees

    Assess and articulate which of the following seven pillars of healthy company culture are core/foundational to your organization: dignity, psychological safety, inclusion, wellbeing, physical safety, agility and innovation. Collect employee feedback on each pillar as part of employee listening strategies (e.g., annual engagement survey) and look to identify strengths and correlation between healthy employees and financial outcomes.

    Employers have long understood the connection between employee wellbeing, engagement, productivity and business results. Today more than ever, organizations have an opportunity to double down on efforts to ensure employees are healthy and well. In separate Willis Towers Watson research conducted in May 2020 and June 2020, more than two-thirds of employers said the organization’s No. 1 benefit priority for the remainder of the year is to communicate about the benefits and wellbeing programs that employees might find important.

  5. 05

    Elevate and re-center your approach to employee wellbeing and connect to the employee experience

    Highlight mindset, behaviors, enablers and experience, and put dignity and purpose activation at the core of the strategy. Wellbeing can be a program, an outcome and an attitude that must be infused into the organization’s culture for true impact.

    Start by mapping your wellbeing strategy; ensure it sits within your organization’s mindset, principles and values. Determine the ways leadership and managers can be champions for wellbeing by demonstrating compassion, vulnerability and psychological safety while leading with purpose and building resilience. Look across your programs, practices and policies to determine how you are enabling wellbeing within the organization — and this goes far beyond vendor assessments. Consider practices such as emerging employee resource groups and revised policies for flexible work. Include wellbeing in pay, benefits, and career design and execution. A successful measure of wellbeing is when it is embedded in — and truly part of — the way employees experience the organization.

  6. 06

    Design Total Rewards programs (e.g., pay, benefits, careers) to support dignity, purpose and wellbeing; conduct program assessments to ensure alignment

    Consider what your employee value proposition (EVP) is and which objectives your programs are designed to address. Look at both traditional and nontraditional pay and benefit programs that create financial security and physical health, and consider how your programs provide food and shelter, employee assistance program support, flexible work arrangements and dependent care assistance — all critical to the dignity (and engagement) of employees today. Conduct program assessments of your Total Rewards programs to identify key areas of importance and preference to employees; take steps to realign programs to optimize investments and impact. Shift focus to equitable pay programs (e.g., salary and bonus design); equitable benefits (e.g., health and savings plans); and equitable careers, including equality of opportunity.

  7. 07

    Use employee listening strategies to assess and demonstrate the role of wellbeing, purpose and respect in your organization

    Articulate the importance of employee voice. Demonstrate how employee feedback creates awareness to help drive change. Encouraging employees to share perspectives has never been more important. With changing work conditions, the burden of dependent-care responsibilities, limited social interaction and continued civil unrest, employees are feeling anxious, depressed and disengaged. Create a forum for employees to voice their concerns and convey back that their opinions matter. This also will demonstrate that the organization is interested in taking steps to create resiliency and a stronger sense of wellbeing.

  8. 08

    Recognize and address social determinants of health and personal determinants of health

    Most legacy wellbeing programs have taken a person-centered view but with an emphasis on physical however, reality requires that employers recognize early signs of mental health issues and provide early interventions. Today’s world also calls for organizations to expand their focus and assess both lack of purpose and SDOH risks as part of a health risk surveillance. Historically, addressing social determinant risks (e.g., hunger, housing issues, childcare challenges, other risks to safety and wellbeing) hasn’t been the purview of employers; however, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of that. Dignity at work now demands that employers address the risks that threaten both health and productivity.

  9. 09

    Take a broad view in how you measure health and wellbeing outcomes

    Traditionally, companies have attempted to measure impact via program participation, evidence of behavior change and proximate health outcomes, such as biometric improvements. Some have gone further and attempted to find evidence in health care claims, but it’s often hard to separate signal from noise.

    A new, or at least additional approach, would include measures of dignity and purpose as key predictors of health (particularly mental health) and individual and organizational performance.

Healthy companies foster healthy employees who, in turn, influence healthy communities. The future may be here, but the time is now to lead with purpose, instill wellbeing and intentionally infuse dignity into all that leaders do.


Managing Director and Chief Innovation & Acceleration Officer

Senior Director, Innovation & Acceleration

Chief Executive Officer, Kumanu

Chief Innovation Officer, Kumanu

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