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Candy Ho is the inaugural assistant professor for integrative career and capstone learning at the University of the Fraser Valley and chair of the CERIC board.

For those who shifted to working remotely, the pandemic has shredded the conceit that there are firm barriers between our personal and professional lives. It’s hard to maintain the mirage of a work-life divide when your toddler is yelling in the background of your Zoom call or your cat takes a mid-meeting stroll across your keyboard.

And good riddance.

A career is not just the work you do for a paycheque. It is a constellation of the many roles people play throughout their lives. So, when we think about career satisfaction, we have to consider the whole person.

Why should employers care? Satisfied employees are productive employees (13 per cent more productive, according to recent studies conducted by professors at the University of Oxford, MIT and Erasmus University Rotterdam). Research published in Harvard Business Review also shows that when employee experience improves, revenue increases.

According to the 2022 Gallup State of the Global Workplace report, 57 per cent of the world’s employees are neither engaged nor thriving. Gallup differentiates these terms: While engagement “reflects the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace,” the idea of thriving considers a person’s entire life situation, including roles and responsibilities outside of work.

People who thrive tend to hold positive views of their present life and of the next five years, Gallup research shows. Those who are engaged at work but not thriving are 61 per cent more likely to experience continuing burnout. When levels of capacity and challenge are misaligned, burnout or disengagement can result, according to the Career Engagement model by Canadian career development researchers Roberta Borgen and Deirdre Pickerell.

At a time when the labour market is rife with challenges – a labour and skills shortage, an aging workforce and an anticipated recession – executives can’t afford to ignore what employees need to thrive.

Boosting employees’ sense of fulfilment and improving retention rates starts with understanding how their varied life roles intersect with their work. This can help organizations identify what is meaningful to employees and what challenges they may be encountering. It demonstrates that they care for their workers as people, such that they respect employees’ desire – and right – to thrive in all life roles they serve.

Here are several discussion-starters leaders can use to better understand what employees need to thrive:

  • Have your life circumstances shifted in recent years? (for example, life milestones such as finishing school or becoming a parent.) How do you think these new/changed circumstances influence your professional goals and dreams? How do they change the way you approach work?
  • How does your work contribute to your professional and personal goals? What gaps exist and how can our organization provide further support?
  • Complete the following sentences: “I am at my best at work when …”; “To be at my best, I’ll need … from my team/organization.”

This is not about prying into people’s private lives or trying to solve their personal problems. Rather, these questions are invitations for employees to share more about their life outside of work – should they choose – and discuss how these roles can affect their performance. This can be structured and formal, or more casual, depending on organizational culture. Check-ins can take place in one-on-ones or be incorporated into team huddles.

These conversations also enable employers to get a better read on whether employees are feeling fulfilled by their work. LinkedIn editor Andrew Seaman suggests that professional fulfilment can be attained through two avenues: mission alignment – where an individual’s values and/or goals correspond with their organization’s purpose – and everyday fulfilment, which could include whether a job meets the individual’s financial needs, offers sufficient growth opportunities or allows them to work with people they like, for instance.

Taking steps to understand what workers need to thrive enables organizations to exhibit empathy and address employees’ needs and challenges at the intersection of their work and life roles. Without asking, a supervisor might not know that a worker who has been showing up late has become a primary caregiver for their elderly parent and needs flexible hours. Or a star performer who appears to be slacking off might need a new challenge to feel more engaged.

Supporting employee thriving serves to acknowledge that employees have different circumstances and require individualized support. Sometimes, being “fair” is about recognizing that workplace policies and practices can affect people differently and choosing more equitable approaches.

When organizations recognize and respect employees’ professional and personal responsibilities, employee satisfaction increases and companies benefit from improved productivity. And when employees experience their employers making a conscious, concerted effort to acknowledge and accommodate their life roles, they feel valued and appreciated. Creating a workplace where people can thrive is a win for everyone.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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