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Study Finds That Seeing Work As A Calling Often Leads To Problematic Behaviour And Burnout

Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

An organisation full of passionate and engaged individuals pursuing meaningful, purpose-led work has long been the aspiration of employers and employees alike, but new research from Oxford Saïd reveals that there can be a dark side to following a ‘calling’.

‘Because a sense of calling is often rooted in strong ideological beliefs, and in some cases bound up with identity and a sense of self, individuals can experience confusion and a painful tension between deeply held values and the realities of the work,’ said Sally Maitlis, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership. ‘Responses to these challenges range from resilience to burnout, and have significant implications both for workers and their employers.’

In an in-depth study of 50 animal shelter workers in North America, Maitlis and her co-author Kira Schabram, University of Washington, discovered that people for whom work is a calling pursue one of three different ‘calling paths’, two of which lead to burnout. ‘While all of our study participants entered animal shelter work with similar passion and purpose, and faced the same kinds of challenges, individuals on different paths interpreted these challenges differently, had different emotional responses to them, and negotiated them differently,’ said Maitlis.

Identity-oriented path

People on this path had from an early age believed in their special connection with animals and often started at the shelter with an idealistic view of what their work would entail. They were shocked by the realities of shelter work, responding to challenges such as the high volume of euthanasia  as if they were a personal assault on them and the gifts they had brought to the shelter. Initially this led them to seek out only ‘happy’ work in fostering and adoption, but later, believing themselves to be the ones who best understood the animals, they would actively engage in the most painful tasks, such as caring for animals at life’s end. This increasingly extracted a personal cost and, depressed and burnt out, they left to seek work in less demanding animal-centric industries including grooming, training, or veterinary medicine.

Contribution-oriented path

This group entered animal shelter work believing they had distinctive skills and experience that they could use to make a positive impact on the world. While also shocked by shelters’ constrained resources, poor management, and numerous other problems, individuals on this path pursued leadership positions, confident that things ‘would be different if I ran the place’. However, they were frustrated by shelter politics and found that their change initiatives were stonewalled. In the end ‘they developed new accounts of their purpose and themselves. Broadening their purpose to include having a bigger social impact and seeing themselves as unable to make a real difference in the shelter, they sought contexts outside animal welfare to make their contribution.’

Practice-oriented path

‘While passionate to make a difference in animals’ lives,’ the study notes, workers in this group ‘did not consider themselves to have unique gifts or skills for the work. With more modest aspirations, they tended to respond to the challenges of animal welfare with less intense shock and negative emotion than did others….Although they later felt the emotional pain of shelter work…individuals on the practice-oriented path focused on learning the work of animal welfare, gradually increasing their mastery and impact and eventually creating roles with an extended reach into the community.’

‘Individuals with a calling, often eager, hard-working, and dedicated, represent an attractive group of job candidates to most organisations,’ said Maitlis. ‘Our study found that called employees went far beyond the call of duty: they put in unpaid hours, volunteered for the most difficult shifts, were diligent in their care, and brought new ideas. However, individuals on the identity and contribution paths often engaged in well-intentioned but often counterproductive behaviours when they encountered challenges: they had conflict with co-workers, extracted care into their homes where it could be neither monitored nor regulated, and ruminated constantly, becoming emotionally and physically exhausted.’

Maitlis and Schabram suggest ways in which employers can support these individuals, according to their calling path.

·         Those on the identity path could be helped to calibrate their expectations for expressing this part of themselves in their work, or access other parts of their identity more easily enacted in the calling context.

·         Those on the contribution path could be helped to avoid a sense of defeat by receiving a more realistic preview of the work of a calling and its challenges, and hearing how others have successfully negotiated them to have impact.

·         Finally, those on the practice path could be given the opportunity and support to grow, and have it acknowledged that learning and growth are sources of strength and resilience not only for them as individuals, but also for their organisations.

Negotiating the Challenges of a Calling: Emotion and Enacted Sensemaking in Animal Shelter Work is in the April/May issue of the Academy of Management Journal

Source: Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

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