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Employees who pursue work as a calling can be a boon, but burnout is frequently the outcome, study finds

March 31, 2017

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, (718) 398-7642, press@aom.org

Callings as self-realization? Less self seems to bring more realization

Although for most of human history, work has been viewed mainly as necessary drudgery, in recent decades a very different notion has come to the fore – the desirability of work as a calling. As a new study in the Academy of Management Journal observes, "the pursuit of meaningful, purpose-led work has been encouraged by industry, business leaders and popular writing," added to which 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.”

Are such views unrealistically heroic? asks the new paper. It then probes when a sense of calling makes workers more or less able to deal with job challenges – that is, when "the intense engagement, personal and social significance...associated with callings may facilitate unusually resourceful ways of responding to challenges," or, alternatively, when "the intense passion of the called and the belief that this is their unique purpose may blind individuals to personal limitations regarding their ability to succeed in their chosen calling, driving them to overinvest and potentially damage their health."

The investigation, by Kira Schabram of the University of Washington and Sally Maitlis of the University of Oxford, leads to a discovery of considerable practical value: People for whom work is a calling pursue it through different paths, two of which lead to burnout while a third leads to thriving. In the words of the study, "None of those we studied had a moderate experience of their calling: they either followed a practice path that produced learning and growth or one of the two other paths that generated intense negative emotions and culminated in burnout and exit from the occupation.”

They add that, in contrast to the preponderance of research on this subject, "which has focused on callings as a unitary phenomenon...we can see that calling paths can take multiple forms, with distinctly different dynamics and outcomes for the individuals and the organizations involved."

And, ironically, the two paths that lead to burnout are characterized by an intense striving for self-realization, which is persistently advanced nowadays as the essence of callings. Comments Prof. Schabram, "In much of popular culture, the young are exhorted to seek out callings for the sake of self-realization, so as to realize what is special or unique about themselves. Yet, when it comes to callings, less self seems to bring more realization."

The professors reached these insights through in-depth, individual interviews with 50 current or former workers in animal shelters across North America, organizations that promote the prevention of cruelty toward dogs, cats, and other animals and offer temporary housing and care for them. Animal-shelter employment, they write, "attracts those with a calling for prosocial work, and the common practice of extensive unpaid overtime and the limited room for advancement tend to discourage those who see work only as job or career." It also presents arduous challenges, because of "resource constraints, extensive bureaucratic and legal restrictions, and the grim reality that the lives of most domesticated animals are short and filled with suffering." A further consideration was that Prof. Schabram formerly worked in this field and could provide "insider knowledge that enabled a more nuanced understanding of our participants' experience.”

Interviewees, 86% of whom were female, were identified as truly called to this work, since they described it in terms of at least three of four characteristics that management literature associates with callings – 1) a passion for and 2) enjoyment of the work, 3) a sense of obligation or moral duty, and 4) the need to make a prosocial difference. At the same time, interviews revealed these three distinct paths to callings:

■ Identity-Oriented Path. With love of animals and a gift for handling them central to the identity of these workers, they responded to harsh aspects of the job (such as the habitual euthanizing of animals or frequent crassness of pet owners) as if these were personal affronts. Recoiling, they would seek out the most heart-warming of tasks, like manning the adoption desk, only to then seek out the most heartbreaking of tasks, such as caring for animals at life's end. This conflicted ricocheting "proved unsustainable over time," the professors 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-Oriented Path. This group viewed themselves as 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, and sought leadership positions in the hope of bringing change. Still, even when they gained those posts, change proved elusive. "Despite some success," the professors write, these workers "ultimately felt burned out and defeated by the shelter inertia." In the end, "they developed new accounts of their purpose and... sought contexts outside animal welfare [such as nursing, teaching, and pharmacy] 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."

In sum, as to the central question of the study – when callings make workers more resourceful and when more vulnerable in confronting job challenges – the former proved to be the case for workers on the practice-oriented path, the latter for those on the two others. And, while workers may ultimately benefit from giving up on jobs for which they were ill-suited, there is no gainsaying the pain and loss to which the experience subjected them, Prof. Schabram says.

As the first research to define key differences in callings, the paper, its authors believe, makes an important contribution to organizational management. It gives managers the means to do what workers with callings generally lack the objectivity to do on their own – to see beyond the impressive power of callings – and, moreover, to do so without losing appreciation of their value.

As the professors write in conclusion, “Individuals with a calling…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...Organizations employing people who feel called could benefit from developing ways to support those individuals to deal constructively with challenges inherent in their work…For example, 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 organizations. This is especially true when those organizations deliver services that
are demanding, emotionally taxing, and poorly rewarded in society – as is true of many callings.”

The paper, “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. This peer-reviewed publication is published six times yearly by the Academy, which, with about 19,000 members in 128 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Discoveries.

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