Purpose equals happier people

A dangerous combination of colonialism and industrialisation has meant we are now living on a disintegrating planet and in a more unequal society than any time in history. Thankfully some businesses are rising to the challenge of correcting this imbalance and may many more do so. What we discuss less is how the disconnect between individuals and that between people and planet causes us a profound lack of fulfilment as these gaps violate our true humanity. Let’s explore what businesses can do to reverse this leading to better business and happier, more fulfilled employees.

What’s gone wrong?

Ignoring the most recent millennia, for much of the history of humanity, communities were generally balanced and equal. The intuitive creative right side of the brain was given as much precedence as the logical, cerebral left side. Homo Sapiens didn’t see herself as dominant at the top of a pyramid of nature but as an integral part of all life on earth. There was as more importance put on who we were (being) as on what we were doing. The feminine was not seen as inferior to the masculine but an equal and essential counterpart. Perhaps most importantly, human beings lived in communities and saw the direct results of how their actions and work impacted on other people within their community and on nature itself.

How life has changed! And whilst western business cannot be blamed for all of this, it must carry much of the responsibility as business culture has often reinforced the cult of the individual at the expense of life-giving and caring communities. The colonial mindset fostered by the industrialised West has been exported all over the world encouraging people to think of themselves as independent to nature and other communities in the world. We have given the logical mechanistic brain pre-eminence over the intuitive side and put the masculine over the feminine – nowhere are both factors more obvious than in traditional business leadership. As we have moved towards a global society, the damage our companies do to our planet is out of sight and out of mind – our waste is someone else’s problem. We have stopped viewing the people within our businesses as people but human resources, commodities to help us with our single aim of advancing profit at all other costs.

All this has created a disastrous impact on our people’s mental health and happiness. The UK government’s Health & Safety Executive in November 2020 stated that “in 2019/20 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health”. This was significantly higher than the previous year and before Covid had taken hold in the UK. How much worse are these stats now?

Clear purpose creates a clear difference

So, as C-suite execs, what can we do to improve our people’s happiness? In short, ensure that all our people come to work with a clear purpose. Happiness at work, contrary to many people’s beliefs, is not directly correlated to salary. (In the Boston Consulting Group’s 2014 paper ‘Decoding Global Talent’ attractive fixed salary was only 8th on the list of happiness on the job.) Perhaps someone should try telling this to Goldman Sachs, who in early August 2021 significantly raised the salaries of their junior bankers after complaints about a 95-hour working week, thinking that throwing money at a problem will solve it. It won’t.

Let’s talk about purpose, first company purpose. As more and more Gen Z and Y come into the workforce (already more than 50% of the whole) the best talent will increasingly want to work for companies that are helping to bring social justice to the world and positively impacting the climate emergency. They will increasingly not want to work for companies who still hold the financial bottom line as paramount.

Getting our priorities right

Yes, absolutely, every company needs financial sustainability, but at our companies we put people and planet first and the profits follow. When the people who work in a company know and understand this important shift and actively partake in that purpose, they are happier. Happier people are more productive people which often leads to greater profits. It never has been a great motivation to work in a company where the CEO is being paid more than 300 times the average worker’s wages – this level of inequality as seen in many of the UK’s FTSE 250 companies breeds discontent and unhappiness. Where making the world a better place comes first rather than directors lining their own pockets, people don’t see work as a chore to be endured in order to enjoy their weekends and holidays, they can actually enjoy being at work!

Every year at Cotswold Fayre we mail out an anonymous employee survey. One of the more straightforward questions is “Do you enjoy coming to work?” Yes or No. The worst score we have ever had is 94% ‘Yes’s and the best was 100% – that year we did check the ‘No’ button was working! As a consolidator and wholesaler of speciality food, our entire business model is better for the planet, but the people here love being part of an organisation that is doing more than that to make the world a better place. We are a long way from perfect, but we do make progress every year – indeed, we must in order to remain a B Corp where the bar to certification increases each time we certify.

So, yes, being part of a company having a strong positive purpose is important, but we must also look at some of the other disconnects that have been part of the human condition since industrialisation. As businesses we have encouraged people to have a ‘work face’ and then forced them to fit into a hierarchical structure where creativity is often discouraged, and fun frowned upon. Leaders have often seemed distant and certainly not vulnerable. The inner side of us has been repressed at work and we would do much better to foster an atmosphere were people, including leaders, are encouraged to talk about their fears and express their emotions.

Personal purpose is important too

Finally, where does personal purpose fit in? It’s all very well being part of a company with a strong purpose but encouraging all our people to have a fulfilled life is equally important. We can learn from the Japanese here – a philosophy from the island of Okinawa where more live to 100 years old than anywhere else in the world – not a coincidence! They would say that fulfilment, or Ikigai, comes from being balanced in four areas. Loving what you are doing, being good at what you do, being paid for it and doing something the world needs.

So let’s decide today to create a more fulfilling workplace. Ensure your company has a clear purpose and everyone in the company feels part of that. Create an atmosphere where it isn’t all about productivity but where people talk about feelings too. Encourage your people to be open about what could be better for them and ensure everyone is operating in a role that they enjoy. Be prepared to move any people on that are dragging others down.

If this open, fun, and fulfilling atmosphere is fostered, people will stay in our companies longer, be absent from work less and be happier and more productive. And the world will be a better place too. Win – win.

Paul Hargreaves is chief executive of Cotswold Fayre.


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