What's worse than working while sleep deprived?

What's worse than working while sleep deprived?

We’ve all suffered through it. Whether it’s because of a sick child, late-night concert or, in my case, ridiculous vampire novel, we’ve showed up to work sleep deprived.

We try to excel but can’t drum up motivation. Caring about the quality of our product or attentively listening to a coworker takes herculean effort. Without enough sleep we’re foggy, sluggish and joyless.

Guess what? For performance and well-being there is something we need as critically as sufficient sleep, but get less often.

What is this vital work element that most of us unknowingly lack? It’s social purpose. Social purpose involves fighting global hunger, keeping a mile of highway trash-free, taking the single mother who works across from you to visit her hospitalized daughter or otherwise making a meaningful contribution to others or to societal causes. Scientists have uncovered that lack of social purpose costs us in a similar manner as sleep deprivation – it saps our motivation, performance and happiness.

To be fair, studies show that any compelling purpose – whether it’s buying a speedboat, pursuing a promotion or winning the year-end bonus – will boost energy, motivation and performance. In fact, by definition, a purpose focused on ourselves does more for us than a purpose focused on others. Correct?


In a study of sports and sales teams, being “rewarded” with benefits that go to teammates was a more effective motivator than with personal benefits.[1] Another study found that lifeguards who read stories about lifeguards saving lives went on to work 40% more hours while those who read testimonies on how work had benefitted the lifeguards themselves did not increase their hours.[2] Other research finds that those who have and achieve a social purpose experience a greater uptick in happiness than those who have and achieve a self-serving purpose.[3]

Social purpose might be the best motivator there is. Research that I’ve conducted on four Fortune 500 companies finds that if you have a sense of social purpose you’re significantly more likely to find your job engaging.[4] Other researchers have found that employees who derive meaning and significance from their work are twice as likely to be satisfied with their work and three times more likely to stay with their employer.[5] The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen found that increasing our sense of purpose is the best way to increase our job satisfaction.[6] Similarly, a survey of 20,000 employees in dozens of countries found that, of 15 job needs studied, deriving meaning and significance from work had the biggest effect on work satisfaction.[7] Other studies have found that social purpose propels us to work longer, harder, more effectively and with a better attitude.

What’s more, the benefits of work with social purpose extend to our personal lives. Dozens of studies demonstrate that social-purpose activities improve health, including by lowering inflammation, cholesterol, high blood pressure, pain and our chances of getting Alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease. Those who make a positive social impact have less insomnia, anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness.

Not ready to jump on the social-purpose bandwagon yet? What if I told you it improves marriages and friendships? It does.[8] What if I told you it gave you six-pack abs? OK, maybe not.

Social purpose could even save our lives, however. A study of nearly 140,000 people across 130 countries found that purpose prevents suicides. Lack of purpose explains why some wealthy countries with abundant comforts and relatively few hardships, like Japan, have high suicide rates. Conversely, an elevated sense of purpose explains why many countries burdened by the grinding adversity of poverty, like Senegal, have low suicide rates.[9]

Sadly, instead of benefitting from workplace social purpose, most of us are dampened by its absence. A global study found that only one-third of workers derive a sense of purpose from work.[10]

Are you among the vast majority of workers who tolerate chronic sluggishness workweek after workweek not realizing that a shot of social purpose would perk you up?


[1] Anik, Lara, Michael I. Norton, Elizabeth W. Dunn, and Jordi Quoidbach..”Prosocial Bonuses Increase Employee Satisfaction and Team Performance.” PLoS ONE (2013) 8(9):e75509. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075509

[2] Grant, Adam. The Significance of Task Significance: Job Performance Effects, Relational Mechanisms, and Boundary Conditions. Journal of Applied Psychology. (2008)

[3] Niemiec, Christopher P., Richard M. Ryan, and Edward L. Deci. “The Path Taken: Consequences of attaining Intrinsic and Extrinsic Aspirations in Post-College Life.” Journal of research in personality 73.3 (2009): 291–306. PMC. Web. 26 Oct. 2017.

[4] Boccalandro, Bea. Unpublished survey research involving over 11,000 employees. 2015-2017.

[5] The Energy Project. The human era @ work: Findings from The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review 2014.

[6] Happiness Research Institute and Krifa, Job Satisfaction Index 2015. 

[7] The Energy Project. The human era @ work: Findings from The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review. 2014.

[8] Schreier, M.C., Schonert-Reichl, K.A., & Chen, E (2013). Effect of volunteering on risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adolescents: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(4), 327-332; Sneed, R., & Cohen, H. (2013). A prospective study of volunteers and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychology & Aging, 28(2), 578-586; Arnstein, P., Vidal, M., Well-Federman, C., Morgan, B., & Caudill, M. (2002). From chronic pain patient to peer: Benefits and risks of volunteering. Pain Management Nurses, 3(3), 94-103; UnitedHealthcare and VolunteerMatch Do Good Live Well Study Reviewing the benefits of volunteering 2010; and Stephen G. Post, PhD “Rx It’s Good to Be Good (G2BG)” American Journal of Health Promotion 2017, Vol. 31(2) 163-17. Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Wilson RS, Yu L, Schneider JA, Bennett DA. Effect of purpose in life on the relation between Alzheimer disease pathologic changes on cognitive function in advanced age. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2012 May;69(5):499-505. Boyle PA, Buchman AS, Barnes LL, Bennett DA. Effect of a purpose in life on risk of incident Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment in community-dwelling older persons. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2010 Mar;67(3):304-10.

[9] Oishi, S., & Diener, E. (2014). Residents of poor nations have a greater sense of meaning in life than residents of wealthy nations. Psychological Science, 25(2), 2422-430.

[10] The Energy Project. The human era @ work: Findings from The Energy Project and Harvard Business Review. 2014.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on the post date and reposted here in January 2018 when this site launched.

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