Is being too dedicated to your career bad in the long-term?

There is such a thing as being too dedicated to your career, according to new research. Here's why extreme dedication can damage long-term success.

People who feel their work is integral to their lives and identity may actually find it difficult to sustain productivity over long periods of time, new research from Kings Business School suggests.

According to Dr Michael Clinton, who studied the working lives of 193 Church of England ministers, people who view their career as an intense calling are less able to successfully disengage from work in the evenings which limits their energy levels the following morning.

One would assume that these people would dedicate more energy to their work. However, Clinton has discovered that having an intense career calling motivates people to work longer hours which directly limits their psychological detachment from work. In turn reducing sleep quality and their ability to focus.

“A calling produces a set of superior goals that are given higher priority over other life goals. This focus on calling-related goals can be problematic when the additional goals, which may include both personal and family related goals, are not given sufficient attention and when they are important for individual functioning,” says Clinton.

From clergymen to zookeepers

Clinton found that the minsters who strongly believed their existence would be much less meaningful without their involvement in the church could engage less frequently in daily recovery processes that typically help protect people from work-related strain.

Individuals display workaholic tendencies in almost every sector, from zookeepers to bank managers, but this research suggests that intense career dedication could actually impede both professional and personal success in the long run.

“This study has shed light on how callings may often be challenging for an individual, demanding more of them than perhaps less meaningful and consuming endeavours. People should be aware of how much value they place on their career and the subsequent effects of this on their life,” says Clinton.

Keeping up with business expectations

A recent survey of 1,003 SME owners in the UK revealed that three in four believe the rules of doing business have changed significantly in the past year. With Brexit and other uncertainties looming ahead, they also expect that the way we work is likely to keep changing.

The higher the business turnover, the more likely respondents were to agree that the rules of doing business had changed. 91 per cent of businesses with a turnover between £1 million and £10 million, and 93 per cent of those with a turnover between £10 million and £50 million shared this view.

Of the SMEs that believe the rules of doing business have changed, the main observation is that competitor activity has become more intense and there is a constant need to ‘stay one step ahead’. SME owners also worry about keeping up with competitors as decisions have become more data driven (39 per cent) and a need to keep track of regulatory changes (38 per cent). The research was carried out by accountancy firm, Menzies LLP.

Work-life what?

Proving that they are ready for the choppy waters that lie ahead, SME owners appear to be very focused on the things that are important to the success of their business, possibly to the detriment of their personal lives. The majority of SME owners said their top priority is ‘delivering a good quality product or service’. SME owners agreed that spending quality time with family and friends is not as important as running a successful business.

“SME owners seem broadly happy with their work life balance but the findings show that their priorities are skewed towards their professional lives and some are struggling to find time to relax away from the business,” says Julie Adams, senior partner at Menzies LLP. “Whilst staying focused is important, the most successful entrepreneurs tend to be those with a more rounded approach to life who understand what they are doing it for and plan their futures on this basis. In uncertain times, SME owners need to do more, not less, of this type of forward thinking and keep their plans under review.”

The majority of SME owners claim to be happy with their work-life balance. However, on closer questioning, the picture is more ambiguous. A third admitted finding it difficult to switch off and enjoy their downtime and one in five described their work-life balance as ‘out of control’. A quarter of the respondents didn’t see this as an issue at all.

See also: Eight ways to crush your career blues – Some top tips on how to boost motivation at work throughout the year.

Feeling burned out? Blame your career choice

Science explains burnout as a mismatch between what you perceive as your strengths and the demands of your career. Here’s why.

An outgoing engineer who actively seeks out social interactions may have an isolating job in a lab, just as an introvert who shies away from the limelight may be a stellar musician forced to take centre stage.

Both these cases feature people who have certain talents that may be incongruous to their jobs, and according to new research, it is this misalignment that can raise the risk of burnout.

Isn’t burnout just fatigue?

Burnout is a state of physical and mental exhaustion but unlike fatigue, it directly affects motivation and productivity. It’s a helpless state that can’t just be overcome with a good night’s sleep. Health effects of burnout include anxiety, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, insomnia, and depression.

For businesses, the cost of burnout is high, stemming from low productivity, high employee turnover, and medical, legal, and insurance expenses.

It’s a level of chronic stress that usually takes a while to build up, so don’t ignore early warning signs including increased anxiety. mood swings, insomnia, loss of appetite and tired eyes.

Career choices and burnout

Researchers from the Universities of Zurich and Leipzig show that when our unconscious needs are left unsatisfied, burnout is inevitable.

The researchers identified two important motives.

The first is the power motive, which includes the need to take responsibility for others, instil discipline, and engage in arguments to feel strong.

The second is an affiliation motive, the need for positive personal relationships that makes us feel safe and accepted.

When our careers don’t satisfy with our power or affiliation motives, we’re more sucsceptible to burnout. Similarly, if our careers align too closely with our inner motives, we may not be able to cope, either.

“Both forms of mismatch act as ‘hidden stressors’ and can cause burnout,” says lead researcher, Veronika Brandstätter.

Lunch with colleagues or just hungry for power?

The study revealed that those with a high affiliation motive are those who actively need a social role. For these people, eight hours of the work day may be pure torture if there is no scope for personal relationships at work – at least at a subconscious level.

Those with low affiliation motives are happy left alone and face anxiety at the thought of working in teams or collaborating.

People with a high power motive may exhibit physical symptoms like headaches, chest pain, shortness of breath and so on, if they are in a job that has no management or leadership function.

What does this mean for businesses?

According to Brandstätter, a starting point could be to hire candidates based on their motives aligning with the job description.

“Another strategy could be so-called ‘job crafting’, where employees proactively try to enrich their job in order to meet their individual needs,” says Brandstätter.

For example, an employee with a strong affiliation motive could find ways to incorporate brainstorming sessions or team-based projects.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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