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Dr. Serena Reep Headshot

Meaning of Work: What For-Profit Corporations Can Learn From Non-Profits

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According to PricewaterhouseCoopers' 2010 data, 33 percent of the U.S. workforce is highly disengaged from the work they do as compared to 20 percent in 2008 and 10 percent pre-2008. Gallup 2010 also reports that 33 percent of employees in world-class organizations are either not engaged or actively disengaged and 67 percent of employees in average organizations are either not engaged or actively disengaged. What is the cost of this disengagement to the U.S. corporations, you ask? About $292-$355 billion annually, according to Gallup. What gives? Why is there such disconnect and dissatisfaction with the work we do? We spend the largest portion of our wakeful moments at work; if these precious moments are spent in emotional detachment, it speaks volumes about our quality of life.

The way the corporations "run" their business with the "profit first" philosophy ignores the fundamentals of human nature. When people have the opportunity to develop trusting, caring and mutually supportive relationships and form a sense of community with the people they work with, they have a stake in the outcome of the individual and team performance. When this is lacking, however, it becomes "just a job that pays the bills." They will trade their bodies and time for the paycheck but not their hearts and souls.

Contrast this with Martha's story -- a clear example of what "employee engagement" looks like in everyday life.

I've been honored to work for a short time with breast cancer awareness charities. I can't get one particular lady, Martha, out of my mind. She was the most pleasant, vibrant, and positive woman that I've ever met. She was a volunteer; she didn't make a dime from her work but somehow you knew her sentiment was worth more than a paycheck. She helped, she advised, she rolled up her sleeves, she marched, raised money and answered the phones when needed. Martha was the perfect employee who wasn't hired. I couldn't help but think about why more people like Martha weren't actually working at a for-profit company. How can we bottle her incredible attitude and infectious optimism? Why is the nine-to-five worker largely unhappy and disengaged from work while this unpaid woman is eager to get to work every morning? Why?

There is clearly a lack of meaning and passion, lack of relevance, in their jobs, compared to Martha's. Everything Martha did as a volunteer had meaning and was fueled by inspiration. She had beaten the breast cancer that took her mother. Her motivation was not only personal but positively vengeful. After seven years of intense chemo, losing all her hair, her confidence and her marriage, she had one chance left. The chance came in the form of a little known alternative cancer treatment used widely in Asia. She traveled there as a last resort, and this became her saving grace. Now back in the U.S., Martha had made it an obsession to have alternative remedies approved by the FDA, so other woman can have access to treatment options. She is passionate and unrelenting. She squeezes more productivity out of one day than most people do in a month, because she found meaning for her remaining days here on earth.

When your work makes a difference in the world, you will never fully grasp its true influence. The magic of passion is that it lights the passions of others in areas outside of your purpose. When was the last time you saw someone doing something with such passion and intensity that you could only think about what lies dormant in your own life? Martha not only affected those passionate about research and development of cancer treatments but also lit the fires of anyone whose dreams were covered by hesitation and disbelief. The point is this -- when you find meaning in your life's work and lean into it with all that you have, others cannot help but be inspired and lean into their own dreams.

When corporations can replace process with passion, and re-engineer the workplace to sustain a culture of caring and trust, there is much better likelihood that employee engagement statistics will improve and so will their bottom-line.