Staying Connected to the Why

Much of my working life has been found me spending time in and around organizations, working with leaders and teams. Sometimes my role has been to provide support as they explored challenges. More often the work was more aspirational, providing accompaniment and consultation for organizations seeking to more deeply align their day to day work and decision-making with a larger purpose and compelling values.

More recently a good deal of my work has found me providing support in hospital settings with physicians and other clinicians around their well-being,  in disaster settings (with FEMA) supporting responders and other disaster personnel, and in schools and universities supporting educators and educational leaders. In some ways the work in these settings is quite similar. For one thing, in each instance it’s a privilege to accompany folks who care and give so much, often over long periods of time, at significant cost to themselves. Burnout in all of these settings is a real thing.

Doing this work has reminded me how terribly important it is for each of us to stay connected to the Why behind what we’re doing. For while it’s true that the folks I support in these settings get paid for what they do every day, it’s also true that for the great majority of them their reason for doing it goes beyond simply earning a living. Most of these women and men also arrive with a deep desire to make a tangible positive difference in the lives of the individuals, families and communities they serve. They care a great deal.

For disaster responders and clinicians and educators – maybe for most of us at least some of the time – fatigue and sometimes burnout can overtake even the most committed. The initial flush of enthusiasm gives way to long days, weeks, and sometimes months of work burdened by the reality of too much red tape, complicated interpersonal dynamics, disappointing outcomes, criticism and uneven supervision.

One of the interesting findings in research being done on the problem of burnout is the insight that burning out has less to do than we might imagine with simply working long hours and long weeks. Too much work doesn’t by itself cause burnout. Higher on the list of factors that contribute to burnout is an inadequate connection to a sense of meaning and purpose in our work. We become so preoccupied by what we’re trying to do and how we are going to get stuff done, that we rarely speak at all to one another about why we’re doing our work in the first place.

This lack of a lively connection to a sense of purpose is perhaps especially surprising (not to mention painfully ironic) in workplace settings where those doing the work likely came into it out of a sense of calling, drawn by a strong sense of purpose.

Here’s the good news. We also know from experience that this disconnect is unnecessary and not that difficult to remedy. We can be restored to a sense of connection by having regular conversations about the why that undergirds the work we do. Here are some simple ways that I have personally seen work of approaching this conversation:

  • invite people to share stories about the individuals and communities they serve
  • invite people to share stories about instances where their work has made a difference
  • remind one another about how important their work is and how they are making a difference. Get specific on this.
  • ask one another about why they chose to do this work. What drew them? What sustains them?

When it comes to sustaining one another’s commitment and spirits around our work, talking about what matters matters a great deal.

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