Every year, Gallup, the research agency, carries out a global study on employee engagement. For company owners, it doesn’t make for happy reading. In the U.S., only 33 percent of employees say they feel engaged in their jobs, and just over half (51 percent) say they are currently looking for a new job — all indicating there’s a real lack of career purpose among employees.

If you are indifferent to your job, or even actively hate it, you are part of the majority — and Gallup’s research suggests that this proportion is growing.

Given that the average worker will spend over 35 percent of their lifetime (on average) at work, plus another significant proportion of their time traveling to and from the office, these engagement statistics are depressing.

Now, of course, there’s a ton of reasons people dislike their jobs — from bad managers to poor pay and a lack of recognition. But one reason we think is very often ignored in discussions of why people hate their jobs is related to something at the heart of what it means to be human: career purpose. 

Why career purpose is more important than money … or a bad manager

There comes a point in almost everyone’s life where they ask, “what do I really want from my career?” Evidently, there’s no simple answer to this question, and we can’t all spend our lives saving stranded whales. What we can all do, however, is find purpose in our working lives, to give ourselves a sense that what we’re doing has value beyond paying the bills, putting food on the table and making our boss richer. 

Employees (and companies) with a sense of career purpose tend to perform better, stay motivated and achieve more in their professional lives. A sense of purpose even leads to a longer life, according to some studies. And it’s not just millennials that are seeking a "sense of purpose" in their jobs — a recent study from LinkedIn flies in the face of many headlines that claim younger generations seek more meaning from worker than their parents. In fact, older employees, who have less anxiety to get any job just to get on the career ladder, seek career purpose even more than younger workers.

OK, so people are looking for purpose in their careers, aren’t getting it and therefore they hate their jobs? Well, not exactly. I’d argue that there’s something subtler at play here. The fact is, many employees are fairly happy with the actual content of their jobs and their job description.

If you’re a salesperson, you like spending time with clients, building those relationships, and that gives you your sense of purpose. If you’re a finance manager, you like planning new ways to invest the company’s money to have an impact, and again, get a sense of meaning from doing so. Same goes for doctors, developers, designers or data scientists: they love getting into the flow of their work and doing what they were hired to do.

But here’s the rub: so many workers spend their working lives not doing what they were employed to do in the first place: 

  • Sales VPs don’t spend their days talking to clients: Most of the time they’re approving expense forms, hunting through their emails, attending meetings about irrelevant business initiatives, interviewing new employees or granting holiday requests.
  • Finance managers don’t spend their days making investments: Instead, they spend their days chasing up invoices, signing off complicated receipts, asking suppliers to enter the correct codes into purchase orders and so on.
  • Doctors don’t spend their days with patients: In fact, they are constantly distracted by emails, hunting through computer systems, trying to find the name of a prescription drug or reviewing documents created by junior staff. 

The point here is that many employees do have a sense of purpose in their careers. They have a clear idea of why they got into the line of work they are in and why they are doing it.

Unfortunately, the reality of so many jobs is far removed from what people expect when they sign up. Rather than saving lives, selling products or services that make people happier or building a company that makes the world a better place, they end up disillusioned. They spend so much time doing slow, menial and repetitive admin tasks they end up frustrated, saying to themselves: “I didn’t spend years studying, doing internships and working up the ladder, to become some kind of administrator!”

Let people do what they want to do. Ultimately, it’s about helping people find purpose in their jobs again, to boost engagement, morale, and ensure that people get to spend more time doing what they love. 

Ryan Duguid
Ryan Duguid

with 20 years of global IT experience, is responsible for developing and executing Nintex’s technology vision by delivering software and cloud services that help people solve their process problems.