· Features

Is there a danger in our identity and purpose being too tied up in success at work?

I wonder if you were on the edge of your seat watching the Eurovision song contest this year, wondering if ‘the Hump’ would bring home the trophy for the UK this time?

Probably not. With all the unpredictability engulfing the continent at the moment, there are at least two things we can rely on in Europe - the regional voting cabals and the paucity of points for the UK entry.

Competitive sports and contests rely on an unpredictable result to be really entertaining. More broadly, in our wider lives, we also need uncertainty. If every day is just another predictable day in The Truman Show, something fundamental in the human spirit starts to die. We need newness and change - and we've seen no shortage in recent years. We are the i-phone, i-pad, Facebook generation; 24-7 children of a global village. And yet there's a limit to how much uncertainty and change we can handle. We also need a degree of certainty and stability, things we can take for granted.

Every generation has its uncertainties, and one billion people in poverty across the globe have more than their fair share. But perhaps this current 'age of uncertainty' in Europe is different and potentially even more unsettling than for previous generations not because of uncertainty in our outer world, but because of uncertainty in our inner worlds. Looking back over the last 100 years, reference points for our sense of identity and purpose may never have been less distinct than they are today. The 'baby boomers', of which I am one, have seen the gradual disintegration of family life; the erosion of the old certainties of religion; the blurring of gender roles and identities; the mixing of ethnic and national identities.

Unsurprisingly, considering the amount of time we spend there, and in the absence of other reference points, many of us find our sense of identity and purpose wrapped up in our work. In many ways this is an HR director's dream - employees who identify so closely with their work that they give heart and soul to what they are doing. High engagement equals high performance.

But is there a danger in our identity and purpose being too tied up in success at work? In recent years, we've all seen what happens when the profit motive is not transcended by and subject to, a moral sense of purpose. The working world is also more volatile and unpredictable than it used to be. Roffey Park's latest Management Agenda survey reported that 27% of respondents identified with the statement 'I live to work'. While enjoying their work, they were less satisfied with their work-life balance than those that said 'I work to live'. Should this matter to us? It does to one company I know. They carry out an annual survey that measures their impact as an employer on the families of their employees - asking questions like: 'does the fact that your family member works for us enhance or detract from your family life?'. Now that takes courage! Do we have a role in helping our employees find a sense of identity and purpose that somehow transcends who they are at work, so that they are more able to make ethically sound decisions and find a better balance in life?

Two questions we often ask leaders to reflect on at Roffey Park are: 'Who am I as leader?' and 'Why should anyone follow you?' These are great questions. But I find there is also benefit in asking deeper, more challenging, even spiritual questions: 'Who am I?' and 'Why am I?' - questions of identity, meaning and purpose that take them beyond their work to consider the whole of their lives. These are questions people never give time to in their fast-paced lives. But I find as they pursue these questions they seem to discover a more centred and resilient self - more able to navigate and keep things in perspective when things are turbulent at work or at home. In the midst of the uncertainty in Europe and beyond, we could all do with some more of that. And it might even be good for business.

Adrian Lock (pictured) is a senior consultant at Roffey Park