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Doing a job you find meaningful is great – until it consumes your life

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London: Securing a job that you find meaningful – work that you think is significant and value positively – may be one of your most important career goals.

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But there can be a negative side to doing work that you’re passionate about. It can lead to placing too much of your sense of self in your work – and strain on your mental health and relationships.

People who derive a strong sense of meaningfulness from their work may overidentify with their professional roles. This means that their work becomes their primary, and sometimes only, source of self-definition and self-worth: they see their identity only as someone who does that job, and that their value comes only from work.

This can result in high work commitment and dedication with porous boundaries between personal and work domains. If this is the case for you, you may find that work consumes a significant portion of your time, attention and energy. You may find yourself working long or erratic hours, and perhaps struggling to mentally disconnect from work even when not working.

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You might end up sacrificing sleep, hobbies and relationships. And this can have compounding effects over time. Prioritising your work over yourself and going without time for recovery can result in exhaustion, chronic stress and burnout.

Meaningful work can also lead to people neglecting their relationships. Doing work you consider meaningful that becomes a high priority can leave little room for nurturing connections with family, friends and communities outside employment. This can lead to missed social gatherings and forgotten relationship milestones. It may also mean giving lower priority to the everyday interactions with loved ones that make up the core of your relationships with them.

Prioritising work over people can also undermine the trust essential for close personal relationships. The loved ones of people who attach such high value to their work may feel they cannot rely on their presence or emotional availability.

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Organisations may knowingly or unknowingly exploit the dedication of people who experience their work as meaningful. Your employer might take advantage of your commitment by expecting you to work long hours, take on additional responsibilities or accept lower pay compared to market standards. Meaningful work can be used as an excuse for strategic decisions from companies to invest inadequately in people and working conditions.

Employees themselves may be willing to make sacrifices. If you work in a career you find deeply meaningful, you may find yourself tolerating poor working conditions or unreasonable demands. You might voluntarily take on extra work.

For example, a passionate teacher might voluntarily take on extra unpaid duties, such as organising after-school programmes or mentoring struggling students, to compensate for systemic issues at the expense of their personal life. While these sacrifices may initially seem worthwhile, they are a recipe for burnout, resentment and a sense of being taken for granted.

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It might also make changing jobs difficult. You might put off leaving a role or organisation, or find the very prospect of changing jobs emotionally daunting. If you get a strong sense of purpose and identity from your work, it can be challenging to envisage yourself in a different context. But this could mean missing out on career and pay opportunities elsewhere.

Sense of self

Doing meaningful work is an opportunity to be authentic to your values and beliefs. Over time, though, it can lead to an erosion of your sense of authentic self.

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For instance, the pursuit of meaningful work can lead to moral dilemmas when workplace expectations or practices conflict with ethical principles, particularly in commercial settings.

For example, a sustainability consultant may find that the only measures a client is willing to work with them on are greenwashing campaigns to make the company look better. Accepting this contract pits the consultant’s dedication to sustainability against the realities of working in a commercial setting.

In situations like this, people may feel torn between their dedication and working conditions. Suppressing your values can lead to feelings of guilt, shame and disillusionment, eroding the very sense of meaning and authenticity that your work brings you.

And if work is your primary source of validation and identification, setbacks and failures can trigger questioning – not only of your professional capabilities but also of your very purpose and self-worth.

Meaningful work can be a double-edged sword. It requires careful management of its all-consuming nature. But maintaining this delicate balance between the power and pitfalls of meaningful work is not just a task for individuals. Organisations need to develop a foundation of working conditions that centre respect, care and fairness to avoid exploiting people and harming their wellbeing. (The Conversation)

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