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Cigna’s Cindy Ryan on Purpose-Driven Organizations Sparking Employee Engagement

Originally published at Cigna ranked No. 33 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.


Many organizations are experiencing unfamiliar business challenges amid an unprecedented amount of worker resignations. Research shows that employees are generally looking for a more enriching, purposeful experience from their work, in addition to salary and benefits. 70% of employees feel that their sense of purpose in life is defined by their work, and 62% indicate they are seeking even more purpose from their work, according to a recent survey by the global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

While a sense of purpose is not the only factor that can influence an employee’s decision to stay with an employer, it is still a powerful one. Purpose-driven companies tend to experience 40% higher levels of workforce retention than other organizations, as stated in Deloitte Insights 2020 Global Marketing Trends Report [PDF].

In this interview, Cindy Ryan, Chief Human Resources Officer at Cigna Corporation, discusses the benefits of employees having this sense of purpose at work, as well as some ways organizations can help encourage a more purpose-driven workplace.


In a recent article about the importance of employers fostering a sense of belonging among their workforce, you mentioned that a sense of purpose or shared mission is also critical for companies to retain top talent. How do you define purpose at work and how does it help organizations?

A sense of purpose by definition is actually quite personal. It is essentially an individual view of what matters in our lives, our values. So we experience purpose on the job when we are working toward something that we find personally meaningful. The pandemic has led many people to reevaluate how they feel about their work. This includes a look at whether their jobs and their employers, hold meaning in their lives. Generally, employees are more likely to be fulfilled by their work when the organization’s purpose is in alignment with their own.

As for how a sense of purpose helps employers, it starts with employees. Research shows that those who feel this sense of purpose at work report higher rates of satisfaction and excitement about their job, and have a stronger connection and more engagement with their organization, compared to workers who feel less fulfilled at work. People who find purpose in work also tend to have better health and higher levels of resilience and energy. Healthier and more engaged employees are more productive and committed to their employers, which means higher business performance, greater workforce retention and a better bottom line overall.


You stated that employees can feel more fulfilled by their work when their own sense of purpose connects with their company’s purpose. Are there ways companies can strengthen this connection?

An organization’s purpose can be a strong influence on an individual’s sense of purpose at work, especially for employees who seek that connection. How much individual purpose workers actually gain from their job, versus other meaningful parts of their lives such as family, hobbies and other activities outside of work, obviously varies from person to person. However, even employees who are more interested in the paycheck have an opportunity to find more meaning from their work at a company that thoughtfully considers the role it plays in society.

We don’t need to look any further than the ongoing pandemic and social justice movement to see a new emphasis on a strong business commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) priorities. Social and environmental issues are particularly key concerns among Millennials and Generation Z, who represent the majority of today’s workforce. Organizations that make positive ESG investments are more likely to be an employer people are proud to work for. One recent survey found that more than 90% of employees who believe their company makes a strong positive impact on society plan to stay with their employer. So it is critical for business leaders to make an objective assessment of how company strategies, activities and communications follow through on their ESG principles.

While it is good for companies to demonstrate social responsibility and promote the goodwill they provide to society, it is also important to take the time to have continuous, open discussions with employees and find out how they feel about the organization’s purpose and values, and the impact they are actually making on the world. This can be done through organizational surveys, enterprise resource groups (ERGs) and team meetings across all levels. Organizations that do this can get a better pulse on how their purpose and values line up with those of their workforce.

At Cigna, we formally check in with our employees regularly to ensure, as a leadership team and as an organization, we are where we want to be and can act on any changes we are seeing across teams and businesses. We also encourage ongoing, open conversations among managers and individuals, and managers and teams.

In addition, Cigna releases an annual corporate responsibility report to communicate the progress of our ESG investments with the public and to our stakeholders, as well as invite the conversation to identify further opportunities to better respond to emerging areas of interest.


What else can business leaders and managers do to help foster a sense of individual purpose among their workforce?

One thing I recommend is to continually reinforce how individual team members are contributing to the success of the team and the organization. Recognizing employees for these contributions as they happen, and not just during more formal performance evaluations or career discussions, helps them better understand how, and why, their work matters. We recently launched Cigna Standout — our internal recognition platform — that easily allows employees to recognize one another in real-time and even provide “points” that can be used to purchase items or make a contribution to a charity of their choice.

Team leaders can also gauge an employee’s sense of purpose with open conversations during their regular one-on-one check-ins, starting with questions about how the employee feels about their job and what they hope to gain personally from their work. Not every team member may be open to responding, but encourage those who do to share their ideas on how to make their work more fulfilling. This information can help inform education and career development opportunities that can provide team members with greater purpose and fulfillment at work.

At Cigna, we take other steps to strengthen our connections, such as investing in and supporting our ERGs and purposefully focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Virtual team-building activities have also become more important and encouraged in our remote working environment.

The “secret sauce” varies by organization, and cultivating a sense of purpose organizationally and engaging individual employees takes time and effort. But the rewards to the employee and the organization make it well worth the challenge.

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