Recent research is putting a floodlight on the fact that modern workers want a sense of purpose and meaning in their work. But how do you set the stage for and ensure that feeling? According to a survey by BetterUp, it's to let workers do more inner work (e.g., journaling, meditating, leisure reading) and self-care (e.g., working out, handiwork, napping).

Key findings

Led by Harvard PhD and data scientist Andrew Reece, the survey asked 3,000+ working people about their inner work and self-care habits. The survey found that developing the inner self (personal growth, becoming) was the biggest factor in making work meaningful, ranking ahead of categories such as shared meaning, service, honesty, professional growth, identity and inspiration.

The survey also had three other key findings:

  • Employee promotions are positively correlated with inner work breaks.
  • Inner work is positively correlated with subjective levels of happiness.
  • Employees that take inner work breaks at work are less likely to quit.

In other words, people who do inner work not only perform better and are more successful, but they're also happier and don't give companies as many costly and disruptive retention issues. Subsequently, investing in inner work isn't simply new-age fluff. It has a real influence on company atmosphere, stability and the bottom line. Companies that make it a priority might gain a significant edge over those that don't.

Inner work and self-care give a lot, but leadership has to step in

Alexi Robichaux, BetterUp's CEO, asserts that workers do inner work and self-care activities because it gives them the space for reflection and metacognition, which facilitates both learning and growth. But it's not enough for workers to do these types of activities only outside of the office. Because people are spending more time on the clock and are experiencing higher levels of stress, they need time set aside during the regular business day, too.

"Doing inner work at home is a great starting point for building skills and practices like contemplation, reflection and philosophizing. But setting time aside throughout the day is important for organizing your thoughts, prioritizing, making decisions and learning. In fact, our research shows that people who engage in inner work during the day achieve higher work performance than those who only engage in inner work at home."

But getting those precious minutes for inner work often comes down to what the executives and managers prioritize in their policies and daily operations. This means that leadership has to make a conscious choice to build inner work into the employee schedule, and that the responsibility for inner work and self-care isn't solely in the hands of the workers. Robichaux adds that having company leaders support inner work practices is critical to employees feeling like those activities are safe and engaging in them.

Another clue for leaders? BetterUp's survey found that levels of self-care and inner work vary geographically, as do the activities workers prefer. So you shouldn't assume that what you promote successfully in your New York office will work in Arizona, or that the same amount of effort will be needed everywhere to get workers to engage in more of these types of practices.

4 easy inner work and self-care steps to start today

If you're not sure where to start with your own inner work and self-care, Robichaux recommends the following:

1. Start your day right. "Instead of diving straight into emails when you wake up"--(Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook, are you paying attention?)--"[spend] just 15 minutes meditating, praying, reading non-work related materials, reflecting on yesterday's events, or visualizing a meeting or activity you have to do today. If you're looking for somewhere to direct your attention, focusing on your values and how you can bring those to life in your day can be a good starting point."

2. Be proactive about managing your time. "Designate chunks of time to focus on your inner work. This can be as small as 15 minute blocks of time between meetings to reflect on your last meeting and prepare for the next. If you can work up to an hour each day for thinking or reading, that is a great advanced goal to set."

3. Get up and go out. "Get away from your desk at lunch and go for a walk (in nature, if you have some around) with just your thoughts."

4. Get a coach. "A coach is a great partner, since inner work can be hard to go at alone. In a way, coaching can function as 'training wheels' or [offer] a sparring partner for inner work."

To these tips, I would add that technology can be your friend. For example, personally, I try to do zero-based scheduling (similar to a zero-based budget, all my time is allotted somehow) with Google Calendar. The alerts give me a gentle push to do what I said I would for myself.

More insights for more change

While I've covered some of the biggest points from BetterUp's survey, there are still other interesting facts in the data. For those details, check out results in this BetterUp blog post.

Published on: Mar 7, 2018
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of