Viewing Your Job as Your "Calling" Can Lead to Letdown and Burnout

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images / John Moore/Getty Images

There is a downside to being really invested in your work. If you view your job as your calling, you’re more likely to leave your profession when things don’t work out quite as well as you’d hoped, according to a study spotted by Quartz.

The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, is based on four years of interviews with 50 workers at U.S. animal shelters, which the researchers (from the University of British Columbia and the University of Oxford) split into three categories: people who had left shelter work but still worked with animals in some capacity, people who left the shelter and animal-related work in general, and people who were still working in shelters. Many of these workers independently referred to their job as a “calling,” while others described it in ways that the researchers found met the scholarly definition of the concept—being passionate about your work, enjoying it, and feeling a sense of moral obligation or duty to make a difference.

However, while they all viewed their work as a calling in some way, they didn’t all share the same view of what that meant, and they responded very differently to challenges at work depending on those views. “Identity-oriented” workers, who saw themselves as huge animal lovers and described their work as very personal to them, focused on “the continuous preservation of a sense of their special gifts in relation to animals,” according to the researchers; when faced with major challenges in the field, these workers ended up leaving their jobs at the shelter to work with animals in some other capacity, like dog grooming.

“Contribution-oriented” workers were more focused on the pro-social aspects of their job and were using their skills in order to make a difference in the world. They ultimately left the shelter to work in another field, feeling they could make broader contributions to society elsewhere.

The third group was “practice-oriented,” meaning that in response to challenges, they tried to learn more about the work and how to become more skilled animal welfare workers.

The challenges that faced these workers—many of which came as a shock to the participants—included generally dirty working conditions, a lack of training, the moral injustices they perceived in the workplace (such as euthanizing dogs the worker didn’t think needed to be euthanized), lack of funding, long unpaid overtime hours, and other problems that tended to go beyond the typical slog of an office job.

Identity-oriented workers were almost immediately outraged by their working conditions and the realities of the job—such as euthanization or dealing with animal abusers—which were far from what they envisioned. People who were contribution-oriented, on the other hand, didn’t get so angry about those injustices, but eventually became disillusioned by their ability to achieve their world-changing goals. People who were practice-oriented were more able to handle the ups and downs of the job, in part because they didn’t consider themselves to have any particular skills or gifts for the work, even if they did love animals. They had more modest expectations for the job, and believed they could make things better for the animals and considered challenges to be learning experiences toward achieving that goal.

The takeaway seems to be that some people who enter careers thinking they’re answering some greater call can be a little naive about what the job will entail and how much of an impact they can have. While this study only covered animal shelter workers, the same could probably apply to any nonprofit-type career, as well as various careers in medicine, social work, the legal field, and more.

But this isn’t saying that if you do find yourself called to some particular career, you should resist that pull. One 2016 study found that people who are called to one career and pursue another are more unhappy than people who don’t feel like they have any sort of calling. The danger, it seems, is in setting your expectations too high—doing so can lead to disillusionment and burnout. 

[h/t Quartz]