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Can this ancient Japanese philosophy improve employee engagement?

Written by Natalie Lewis on Wednesday, 11 May 2022. Posted in Leadership, HR, People

One in 10 employees are miserable – infecting co-workers with their negativity. If we accept that Western workplaces are broken, then Ikigai offers a lifeline.

Can this ancient Japanese philosophy improve employee engagement?

One in 10 employees are miserable – infecting co-workers with their negativity. If we accept that Western workplaces are broken, then Ikigai offers a lifeline. 

Society and what people want from their work has changed. Finding interesting employment that makes a difference and aligns with their personal sense of purpose/values is the workers’ new priority. They want leaders who care about them as an individual and the opportunity to learn and grow. The youngest of our working generation desire experiences and demand to be inspired. But how are companies doing on engaging their staff?

Around half of employees (51%) are disengaged in the workplace, according to the latest Gallup report. A further 13% are actively disengaged – the most significant drop since Gallup’s records started at the turn of the millennium. They feel unhappy at work and are actively spreading that negativity to colleagues. 

The evidence is clear: We as business owners need to do better at supporting our people to feel invested in their work. But has conventional wisdom on how to course-correct the problem been exhausted?

Further reading on what makes people tick inclines me to think that may be the case.

Ikigai is a Japanese philosophy or way of living. ‘Iki’ means to live and ‘gai’ means reason.

There is a chain of islands in the southernmost part of Japan called Okinawa, known as the ‘Hawaii of Japan’. It has been designated a ‘blue zone’, which is a status afforded to areas of the world where people live longer. Okinawa residents include a 102-year-old karate master, a 100-year-old fisherman and a 102-year-old woman. They swear by Ikigai, which falls into four main life areas: What you love; what you are good at; what the world needs; and what you can be paid for.

These pillars break down further into where they overlap:

If you love something and the world needs it, that’s your mission.

If you love something and you’re good at it, that’s your profession.

If the world needs it and you can be paid for it, that’s your calling.

If you love it and you’re good at it, that’s a passion.

It is said that knowing your Ikigai makes life easier. Reflecting over the last two years, we have seen people make significant changes in their personal and professional lives. Some have decided to move professions, others have created their own businesses; then there are those who have chosen to retire earlier than planned. Certainly, many employees are now searching for less stress, better working conditions and a more balanced life. 

It begs the question: As good employers, should we be encouraging our staff to find their Ikigai? 

Another Gallup report on employee engagement shows that companies with a highly engaged workforce have 21% higher profitability. They also have 17% higher productivity than companies with a disengaged workforce. The tantalising conclusion is that inspiring and engaging our people reduces staff turnover and increases motivation. Ikigai is just one of the tools we could use to do this.

Holding space for conversations with your staff – encouraging them to discuss the questions and share their answers with you – is the first step.  

Exploring the concept of Ikigai could make for a fun and bonding team event, or why not integrate the idea into your review meetings?

Ultimately, when you find something that you love; you’re good at; the world needs; and you can be paid for, then you are truly living your Ikigai. 

Looking to the Far East for philosophical inspiration could be the next smartest move you make in business. 

About the Author

Natalie Lewis

Natalie Lewis

An experienced HR consultant, Natalie Lewis completed a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management – having previously studied a BSc in Human and Animal Behaviour. She worked for a leading internet hosting company before moving into HR and culture strategy consultancy. Her award-winning agency, Dynamic HR Services Ltd, was founded in 2013. Today, Natalie leads conversations around hybrid working, leadership and culture in tech and digital creative SMEs.

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