From Passion to Pathos: The Challenge of Searching for Meaning and Belonging at Work

“[People] made work sacred because they sacrificed, submitted and surrendered to it. They were willing to undergo headaches, deal with insomnia, stress, anxiety and broken family relationships, for their work.”

This month, we wondered why HP CEO Enrique Lores was surprised only 27% of 15,000 employees surveyed had a healthy relationship with work.

That number has been known for nearly two decades.

Already in 2006, the Gallup Employee Engagement Index revealed only 29% of respondents demonstrated active engagement with their job, described as passionate or as feeling a profound connection to the company.

An emotional and psychological bond between workers and workplaces,” engagement is “the degree to which an employee works with passion and feels a profound connection to the company.”(1) This matters because, to Gallup, “the number one determinant of happiness is ‘a good job’: work that is meaningful and done in the company of people we care about.” (2)

An “engaged employee” is usually very positive and enthusiastic about their work and actively and positively supports colleagues and the organization. They are less likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression within eight months. They feel less stress; more happiness and interest offset the stress they do feel.

The “actively disengaged” 17% are unproductive and unhappy and actively spread their unhappiness to others. They can have a very negative impact on their immediate surroundings, suppliers, and customers.

In between are 54% of not engaged employees: “mentally checked-out” or “sleepwalking through their workday and putting time — but not passion — into their work.” The result was that “disengagement can be really depressing.”

So 17 years after the first engagement survey, despite all the workplace changes, leadership research, and neuroscience advances, nearly two-thirds of workers are still not engaged — the so-called epidemic of engagement is now endemic.

This piece explores some reasons for persistently low engagement and focuses on the search for meaning and belonging that long drove the practice of organized religion.

Today, only 20% of adults in the U.S. consider religion the most important source of meaning. Religious practice has been and continues to decline in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Other sources of meaning that adult Americans consistently reported have also evolved. The family, mentioned by 69% of respondents, is evolving as fewer adults find a soulmate, more couples remain childless, and single parents lead one in four homes.

Other sources (such as friends mentioned by 19%) have also been under strain, with more Americans struggling to make friends. Hobbies (19%) have also declined; more of us are literally “bowling alone” but making efforts to rejoin social groups. And health at 16% has also been compromised in the pandemic, especially mental health. Every individual has a blend of sources.

In 2011, a Harvard Business Review article claimed that “Meaning is the new money. ” When non-virtual social networks shrink, work becomes more central to our well-being, and employers take a more significant share of our mind and heart space. Secular firms have figured out that the less we worship at church altars, the more we seem to hold vigil at the workbench.

Of course, U.S. corporate language long borrowed from religion with messianic founder stories, visions, missions, values, epiphanies, and covenants.

But new corporate language has emerged around identity, belonging, purpose, passion, authenticity, and meaning as desperate leaders try to figure out how to manage new types of workers — by appealing to the greater good(s). About 30 years ago, the Harvard Business School bookstore showcased Built to Last, Dynamic Manufacturing, and Balanced Scorecard. Today’s titles include The Culture Map, How Women Lead, The Heart of Business, and Deep Purpose.

In the process, some CEOs have become activists. Others are expected to take stands on social and economic issues and be purpose-driven. And the business of business has evolved in the past decades. And with 34% of Americans finding meaning in careers and 23% in money, our ability to find meaning at work has taken on new importance.

But while organizations encourage belief, belonging, and purpose, they struggle to facilitate faith. People do not trust them (because of various reasons) or are rapidly disappointed. So, their quest to encourage trust turns to coercion instead of positive influence, which results in toxic workplaces and accusations of “purpose-washing.” And it is rapidly clear that encouraging yoga and meditation practices, deemed as spiritual yet not religious, is more about productivity than ethics. Through it all, we throw Hail Mary’s and preach to the choir.

Understanding some of the mechanics of our eternal human search for meaning and belonging might help us as managers and employees develop a healthier relationship with work.

Our primordial and universal desire for meaning.

Some describe this as our innate “religious sense,” perhaps a product of our evolution. Whether you believe we make meaning, or we were made by something of higher meaning, we humans have always sought to grasp at that which lies in the intangible plane of existence.

Of course, the answers to this question are particular to different traditions. But the point is that there is something emotional, neuro-chemical, or perhaps indescribable in terms of a connection humans seek to create with a realm that we cannot see, hear, or touch.

Religion, though it aims to capture what lies beyond this life, isn’t a distraction from — and does not necessarily serve to detract from — this life. As a system of binding norms and values, religions are typically anchored in a superhuman order and empower missionary movements.

Believers embrace the system and enjoy belonging to something larger than themselves. Transcendence evokes finding meaning beyond one’s material conditions and outside of society, and a calling to engage in society according to certain values. As a result, organized religion represented a central source of personal meaning and purpose for many.

In addition, being convinced that there is an afterlife makes life on earth feel less fleeting and meaningless. Individuals who do not believe in the afterlife might give more valence to life itself — and themselves. Finally, clerics instruct but also counsel and lend a supportive and sometimes absolving ear.

As the world turns away from these connections and support mechanisms, human seek belonging and meaning in different areas of their lives. When Carolyn Chen, UC Berkeley professor and co-director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, was doing research for Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes a Religion in Silicon Valley, she found such an example:

“Silicon Valley is one of the least religious places in America. I thought it would be a place devoid of religion and spirituality. But it is actually one of the most religious places I’d ever been.”

“Work is sacred to tech workers. Their companies and startups are the faith communities that spiritually form them and direct their devotion, giving them meaning, purpose and belonging in life.”

Treasure Island (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney)

The more our work matters to us, the greater its impact on our mental health and equilibrium.

Experts like us who have been pushing for more sustainable workplaces to support workers but also tackle the $450 billion productivity loss in misallocated human capital have welcomed more conversation around the negative aspects of work. This should not, however, obscure what psychologists identify as major mental health benefits of working:

1. being in a social contract forces us to interact with others regularly, and ideally enable us to develop a couple of close relationships;

2. having a structure and often set schedules shapes the day and helps us organize the rest of our daily tasks (vs. a retiree who takes the entire day to mail a letter);

3. being able to exercise some aggression or other behaviors that we cannot show at home and conversely escaping unstable home environments;

4. providing a sense of community and belonging, a reason for being beyond family and friends, and a sentiment that we are part of a “collective effort”; and,

5. having a “social identity,” as a contributing member of society and an answer to the perennial question “what do you do?” — important for social placement, finding mates, and developing a sense of self-worth.

For knowledge workers, however, a major factor affecting job satisfaction is the content and caliber of the job assignment itself; jobs that are complex, challenging, and interesting are correlated with higher degrees of happiness at work.

In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described how we experience moments of “flow” or harmony when we are both skilled and challenged. This means that for individuals to thrive at work, the job needs to be well-suited and properly designed — otherwise, we risk burning out (being overwhelmed by work demands and feeling exhausted and unable to operate efficiently) or boring out (feeling understimulated compared to what we have become used to in daily life thanks or because of our smartphones).

Increasingly, however, we seem to be sensing out: feeling lost, apathetic, and missing a sense of purpose at work, especially when we lack one in life or are too tired to really pursue one. As a larger share of our energy is allocated to employer-related activities, our social and economic dependence increases. Work is not just a place to earn income but a critical source of social fulfillment and support. For many knowledge workers, work is essential for personal achievement and a sense of purpose.

“Many of my friends and classmates have been disheartened by and become disillusioned with their jobs in their first few years out of college,” one of our interviewees noted in Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace. “Because I think we sometimes struggle with creating meaning and purpose in our lives when it is not immediately available.”

Employers also impact many more personal areas of our lives beyond wages and paid time off. They cater to physical, spiritual, and increasingly mental spheres. From gym facilities, free meals, entertainment discounts, and maybe just a few decades ago was considered very personal, i.e., fertility treatments and access to mental health apps, counseling, and coaching services.

In the process, companies are gathering more and more data about us — sometimes as part of company strategy (Pulse surveys), sometimes surreptitiously as so-called “bossware” (monitoring mouse and keystroke movements and scanning emails for sentiment analysis). The explosive growth of HR technology enables companies to be nearly all-knowing.

So when the bond is broken — through layoffs or a toxic boss — the experience becomes considerably more threatening and difficult to regulate, especially when other sources of support and meaning (friends, family, religion, and community) have ebbed. Our social and spiritual balance is affected, sometimes powerfully.

These unexpected lacerations are then observed by colleagues who often empathize, experience the pain themselves, and grow more uncomfortable with their own bond with the company.

However, in the world of work the task is and has long been the focus. In the family it is the relationship. We get accolades for work which lead to status. In the family we make efforts towards the relationship which deepens attachment.

When we conflate the two, we spend so much energy on our jobs for employers that we have little left. Often, we do this for status (attachment), but then we eschew other, more meaningful activities and sometimes our health in for fear of losing our jobs or not earning enough. But the drive for the “attachment” benefit is unrealistic — it is conditional “love.”

Making all this worse is the fact that many organizations are still stuck in the model of compliance and uniformity when today’s workplace requires creativity and collaboration. Knowledge workers capable of thinking for themselves and contributing their intellect are still being managed as production line personnel in 1904 by poor leadership. “Modern life is Taylorized life,” argues historian Jill Lepore. As a result, “people with university degrees tend to dislike their jobs more than people without them. Hence, as more people have degrees, unhappiness rises.”

The world seems out of kilter (too.)

Our environment of turmoil, marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), is affecting people’s ability to find meaning in their lives. The last 20 years brought a cacophony of cultural, economic, social, and political changes that, for many, trigger feelings of insecurity, uncertainty and pessimism. These changes trigger stress and absorb precious energy, causing moodiness, declining cognitive abilities, fatigue, and sometimes harshness. People turn to consumerism and commercial outlets for fullfillment, or escape through substance use or illusions of online connections.

Of course, as a species, we’ve demonstrated remarkable adaptability and resilience for hundreds of thousands of years. At an individual level, however, fundamental change can trigger perceptions of personal growth opportunities and being in harm’s way.

All of this depends on the accumulated experiences of each individual and how their brains develop. Successful adaptation to change requires some changes in the brain. The Limbic system (most notably the Amygdala), the Frontal Cortex, and the Hypothalamus are dragged into the tension. Our brains constantly tug between wanting to expand and protect.

Emotions can trigger a faster heartbeat, increase blood pressure, and consume energy. The more we have difficulty regulating our emotions, the less energy is available to run other bodily functions such as our brain, kidneys, and liver. Our bodies tell us when they are stressed. We respond with a behavior change at some point, voluntarily or involuntarily. When the change is existential and widespread, our social systems — institutions, norms of behavior, hierarchy — can also be affected.

Things seem so dire that, in March 2023, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an 82-page advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the U.S. It is reducing life expectancy.

Furthermore, despondency and disconnection are causing anti-social behavior. We see it when we drive, speak with colleagues at work, connect with family members, or scroll through our screens. This behavior seems to spill over and empower groups to act in aggressive and destructive ways, reinforcing a culture of anger and defensiveness and increasing stress levels. By late September 2023, Murphy shared his view that mental health deterioration threatened democracy.

The myth of the savior leader (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney)

Unveiling the quest for meaning: How coaches help clients navigate the post-pandemic workplace

To maintain a balanced body budget, a term used in Lisa Feldman Barret’s How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, these phenomena are causing people to reconsider their values, their belief systems, their behavior, including who they spend time with (or don’t) and how they want to allocate their fixed energy.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, acted as a catalyst for seismic change. It propelled leaders and organizations into an era of turbulence and uncertainty, where adaptability to a volatile and ambiguous world became paramount.

Swiftly, organizations transitioned their operations into the digital realm, ensuring business continuity and, in many cases, survival.

While the pragmatic approach of prioritizing the operational side proved effective, it inadvertently drew attention away from the perspective of employees — a holistic view driven by the search for meaning.

It is no wonder that more and more people are turning to professional coaches as they rethink their assumptions, connect with blind spots, work through resistance, and consider new strategies for leadership. Coaches offer people a safe place to share thoughts and feelings and work through unfinished business. They create the new confessionals.

Business coaches have unique insights into how these macro phenomena are playing out at individual levels.

In the not-so-distant past, coaches supported clients in coaching sessions dominated by questions like, “How can I secure that promotion, meet my organization’s targets, enhance my skills, or develop my leadership and teamwork abilities?” The narrative often revolved around personal growth within the workplace, encompassing roles, skills, capabilities, and overall performance. Torres reported that 83% of HP employees would be willing to earn less to be happier at work. Finally, for younger workers, while earning a stable income and achieving social status remain important, the classic drivers of power or wealth seem less attractive.

As the world found itself with more time and space for reflection, Dr Tarek Jomaa reported that individuals began reassessing their priorities and reconsidering their life choices. This transformation manifested in various ways, from the “Great Resignation” phenomenon to the growing interest in spacious rural homes over cramped urban apartments.

Simultaneously, the demand for flexible work arrangements tailored to individual lifestyles surged.

A parallel rise was witnessed in the need for well-being support and professional coaching. Conversations shifted towards the post-pandemic discourse of seeking added value, motivation, meaningful impact, and contribution.

Yet, the puzzle of “searching for meaning” remained largely unsolved.

Contemplating the concept of meaning on a holistic level can be daunting and even philosophical. A productive starting point is examining it through the prism of interest versus motivation. Meaning-making is a primordial instinct that draws us toward certain interests, and we find meaning in what we’re interested in. However, interest is a dynamic factor influenced by various variables, including environment, culture, technology, age, experience, and significant personal or global events.

In contrast, the science of motivation has remained relatively consistent. Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory from 1964 defines motivation as the product of three factors: Expectancy, Instrumentality, and Valence.

Expectancy represents the link between effort and performance, signifying an individual’s confidence that exerting effort will yield positive results. However, high expectancy alone is insufficient for cultivating strong motivation, as it is intricately connected to other elements of motivation.

Instrumentality, on the other hand, signifies the connection between performance and reward, reflecting one’s perception of the rewards received in return for their performance.

Finally, Valence denotes the personal assessment of the reward’s value, a subjective factor deeply rooted in an individual’s pursuit of meaning based on their current interests.

All of these are covered in major religions, which is not coincidental.

As noted, our interests are in constant flux, ever-evolving to take new forms. Today, many employees willingly forsake high salaries and bonuses in favor of flexibility. Examining skilled employees who have lost the motivation they once possessed, despite already having high expectancy, prompts questions about what happened to instrumentality and valence.

Creating a sense of meaning is particularly challenging when trust in business and leaders is at an all-time low in the general population. Despite their interest in startups and worship of technology companies, younger workers often consider themselves anti-business.

Having a sense of pride in our work means so much to us and affects our engagement in the company we work for. What can we all do to make us all prouder, connected, but not dependent? What would happen if we focused more on finding meaning in how to impact others productively, not only at the global but also at the local level? The definition of purpose involves doing something for ourselves with positive externalities. We often think of purpose as a way to give our lives meaning at work and focus on that first part of the definition.

Can the center hold?

Let’s return to HP’s global work relationship survey. When the survey results were compiled, Enrique Lores was surprised to learn that only one in four employees considered their relationships with HP healthy.

To anyone following social trends, however, this was not a surprise; it confirmed what’s been true since 2006. As much as we’d like to believe the pandemic is responsible for high rates of burnout, despondency, and apathy, the facts do not bear it out.

Persistent low levels of engagement represent a double threat: unhealthy relationships with work — in the context of weaker social institutions such as family, religion and friendships — can lead to sustained stress and negative social externalities. At the same time, executive leaders, with a responsibility to cultivate and integrate the creativity and motivation of employees, squander business value.

All of this raises a question that echoes the words of poet William Butler Yeats: can the center hold? Are the collective attitudes and behaviors of the youngest generation in the workforce the canary in the coal mine? Confronted with change, how will people in positions of power adapt to a new world? For example, instead of harnessing their power through coercion and financial rewards, will they use it to persuade and attract people? This kind of change would be reminiscent of Joe Nye’s 1990s clarion call for the use of less “hard power” and more “soft power” in the conduct of international relations.

As you consider all of this, here are some questions to ask yourself as leader or employee and of your employees or leades:


  • How well do you know your people, what’s meaningful to them, and how their performance is linked?
  • To what extent are you able to adapt your style and behaviors to promote passion that does not lead to pathos?
  • You ask your people to commit to the company’s purpose — how committed are you to supporting their pursuit of meaning in their work?
  • How do you balance your personal ambitions with your responsibilities as a leader?
  • How aligned is your organization’s vision/value/mission with your employees’ search for meaning?
  • How are you managing expectations to make sure that you can meet them? How can we bring them closer and create harmony?

For employees:

  • To what degree are you working with people who share your values?
  • Does your company see you as a human being and accept some responsibility for your well-being and your personal growth?
  • How can you design your life so disruptions at work don’t create too much imbalance?
  • How do you differentiate between meaning and interest?
  • Are you conscious of the trade-off between attachment and authenticity at work and its potential costs to and risks for you?
  • How did your search for meaning evolve over the years?
  • What was the trigger?
  • What did you learn about yourself, and does it influence your current decision-making?
  • If work ceases to be your “church,” then what institution(s) can step in to provide meaning and community?

The traditional workplace offers us a magnificent opportunity to harness and express our near-infinite creativity in a positive social context. However, in the context of declining social institutions e.g., religion, family, friends, and an increasing absence of opportunities for attachment, this potential can be quickly undermined by toxic cultures and our “expulsion,” undermining our sense of belonging, threatening our emotional balance, causing existential disruptions to our lives and sometimes leading to premature death.

Given this, and the reality that the companies that employ us provide only a patina of humanity and in reality, per the current accepted capitalist vision are profit-seeking institutions, employees would do well to recognize both the growth opportunity and the true nature of their relationship with the employer.

All of us possess the potential for restless energy, near-limitless creativity, and continuous search for purpose and meaning. The great opportunity for all of us today is to build a workplace culture that offers more intrinsic meaning to employees and shows them they belong and matter — but also be honest about what work can and cannot do. For employees specifically, it’s to design a life that supports their social needs and overrides outdated conventional wisdom.

In this era of profound change, the pursuit of meaning takes center stage, and leaders must embark on this journey alongside their teams, fostering an environment where purpose and fulfillment are not elusive but integral to the organizational culture — and one that encourages workers to find sources of intrinsic meaning. As Torres concluded, “it’s critical for companies to foster environments that allow people to excel in their careers while thriving in their lives.”

Work comes and goes. We remain.

Compiled by David Ehrenthal, Dr. Tarek Jomaa, and Carin-Isabel Knoop, inspired by many, including the inimitable Triple Doctors: Daven Morrison, M.D., Antonio Sadaric, PhD., and Dr. Michael Stanley. Thank you to ZeSean Ali for his insights.

Sources not hyperlinked:

(1) Jennifer Falkoski, “Burnout, Employee Engagement, and Coping in High-Risk Occupations,” Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture, January 2012, via ResearchGate, accessed March 2017.

(2) John Mackey and Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014), pp. 86.



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.