Meaningful work can be productive and satisfying—or it can lead to burnout

Kira Schabram

Kira Schabram

For most of human history, work has been viewed as a necessary drudgery. In recent decades, though, a notion first introduced during the Protestant Reformation has re-emerged: that it’s desirable to pursue work that is meaningful and filled with purpose. A calling.

“The management literature suggests that people with a calling face challenges in their work with steadfastness and persistence, guided by an internal compass or sense of destiny,” says Kira Schabram, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

But there is a potential downside to following your professional passion.

A new study by Schabram demonstrates that pursuing a calling can lead to thriving—or to burnout.

“None of the people we studied had a moderate experience of their calling,” says Schabram. “They either followed a path that produced learning and growth or one of two other paths that generated intense negative emotions and culminated in burnout and exit from the occupation.”

Labors of love

Is meaningful work always a good thing?

To find out, Schabram and co-author Sally Maitlis of the University of Oxford interviewed 50 veteran employees of animal shelters across North America. They chose shelter workers because they are likely motivated by a personal sense of social purpose—which compensates for the long hours, poor pay, limited advancement, resource constraints, and extensive bureaucratic and legal restrictions. This, coupled with the “grim reality that the lives of most domesticated animals are short and filled with suffering,” adds Schabram, who formerly worked in the field.

The study participants—86 percent of whom were female—described their work as a calling. They professed at least three of four telltale characteristics: 1. a passion for the work, 2. enjoyment of the work, 3. a sense of obligation or moral duty, and 4. the need to make a prosocial difference.

Divergent paths

From their interviews with these dedicated shelter workers, Schabram and Maitlis identified three distinct paths to their callings. Two lead to negative and one to positive outcomes.

Identity Path: Believing that helping animals was their “gift” or an identity they were born with, workers in this group responded to harsh aspects of the job (such as the euthanizing of animals or crassness of pet owners) as if these were personal affronts. They would retreat to the most heart-warming of tasks, such as staffing the adoption desk, only to be called again to the most heartbreaking of tasks, such as caring for animals at life’s end. “This ricocheting proved unsustainable over time,” the authors write. “Burned out and broken down, those on this path eventually left the shelter to pursue less painful animal-centric occupations, such as pet grooming or training.”

Contribution Path: This group believed they were “meant” to have a positive impact on the world and saw animal sheltering as a worthwhile cause. If not outraged initially to the extent identity-oriented workers were, they were still shocked by shelters’ constrained resources and what struck them as overly harsh aspects of their operations. Even when they ascended to leadership positions, change proved elusive. These workers ultimately felt disillusioned and defeated by shelter inertia and sought contexts outside of animal welfare (such as nursing, teaching and pharmacy) to make their contribution.

Practice Path: While as passionate about animals’ lives, 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,” Schabram says, “individuals on the practice 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.” Counterintuitively, these workers, who started out with the smallest expectations, were the ones who found the healthiest path to not only remain in animal shelters, but also to advance and innovate.

Avoiding burnout

Passionate, purpose-driven employees can be extremely beneficial to any organization. “Individuals with a calling go far beyond the call of duty,” Schabram says. “They put in unpaid hours, volunteer for the most difficult shifts, are diligent in their care, and bring new ideas.”

But a calling walks a thin line between soul-stirring and soul-crushing, depending on how it’s approached.

Schabram believes that the study’s findings equip managers to help their most passionate employees—often blinded by the power and intensity of their callings—to negotiate the dangers without losing appreciation of their value.

She suggests that organizations with purpose-driven employees should develop ways to support those individuals to deal constructively with challenges inherent in their work.

Managers could help those on the identity path, for example, 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 context of the calling.

They could help those on the contribution path to avoid a sense of defeat by receiving a more realistic preview of the work and its challenges, and hearing how others have successfully negotiated them to make an impact.

And managers could give those on the practice path the opportunity and support to grow, and the acknowledgement that learning and growth are sources of strength and resilience not only for them as individuals, but also for their organizations.

“This is especially true when those organizations deliver services that are demanding, emotionally taxing, and poorly rewarded in society,” adds Schabram, “as is true of many callings.”

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