Having a job that you find meaningful seems like an unqualified good: If you’re going to spend such a significant chunk of your waking hours doing whatever it is you do, you probably want to feel like those hours count for something — like your work has a purpose, and you’re not just slaving away on tasks that don’t really matter.
And that is a good thing — but only up to a point. According to a study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal and highlighted by Oliver Staley at Quartz, finding too much meaning in your work can leave you exhausted and burnt out. The danger in thinking of your job as more of a calling — which the authors defined as “a meaningful beckoning toward activities that are morally, socially, and personally significant, involving work that is an end in itself”— is that your passion for the work can, paradoxically, push you to leave it.
The study authors focused their study on people who worked, or had once worked, in animal shelters — an emotionally taxing, not-very-lucrative role, making it one that most people would choose only if they were truly dedicated to the work. After interviewing 50 people about their experience during their time at the shelter and afterward (if applicable), the researchers divided their subjects into three categories, or what they called “calling paths,” based on how they dealt with the emotional challenges of the job.
The first category, labeled “identity-oriented,” describes those who felt drawn to the work because they believed themselves to have a special gift for working with animals. The second, “contribution-oriented,” was for people who chose their professional path because they wanted to make a difference in the world. And the third group was the “practice-oriented” people, those who “were more realistic about their own abilities and aspirations,” as Stanley put it. These were the people who saw the job as a job — one where they could grow their skill set and build relationships with their colleagues, same as almost any other professional setting.
Members of this last group were also the ones most likely to stay at the animal shelter for longer stretches. Participants who fell into the other two categories, the authors found, were much more likely to report that burnout and emotional fatigue had pushed them out — those who saw animal work as part of their identity moved to work in other animal-related fields that didn’t tug quite so strongly on the heartstrings, while those who saw it as a way to make a difference left for what they saw as more broadly impactful roles. The way to stay in a role you feel passionately about, in other words, may be to regulate that passion, leaving room for some level of detachment from the job no matter how fulfilling you find it. A meaningful job is nice, but it shouldn’t be the only meaningful thing in your life.