Can Too Much Meaning at Work Be Harmful?

Does your work fill you with a sense of meaning and purpose? Do you love what you do so much, you actually find it hard to switch off? Do you ever worry -- just a little -- that the positive difference you're making through your work is starting to consume you?

If you're nodding your head, you're in good company.

For example, I'll never forget the year I turned up for parent-teacher interviews at my son's school only to find his poor teacher so ill she could barely speak. We tried to send her home, but she insisted she couldn't let the parents down. And while we appreciated her commitment, given teacher wellbeing is thought to have one of the biggest impacts on our children's likelihood of flourishing, we would have rather she went home and rested up.

Likewise a friend recently asked me: "Outside of your work and your family, what else are you making time for right now?" Well...

The problem I explained was that my work, my hobbies and my friends all tended to revolve around the world of positive psychology at this moment. And while I love this about my life right now, I did take the point she was making. When I need to stop and switch off, can I? Perhaps like my son's teacher a little more time away from my work might benefit everybody.

But let's be honest, finding this balance can be really hard when you love what you're doing and feel that it's making a difference for others. So can too much meaning really be a bad thing?

Let me be clear studies have found that finding meaning in your work brings many benefits. Researchers suggest it improves our wellbeing, leaves us feeling more satisfied with our lives and lowers our levels of hostility, stress and depression. It also appears to increase our level of job satisfaction, career commitment and organizational commitment which is why many workplaces are trying to find ways to make work more meaningful for us.

But Professor Robert Vallerand also suggests that when it comes to finding meaning and purpose in our work, we can have too much of a good thing.

Take a moment and think about these questions:

  • If you were to divide yourself up like a pie, how big would your work slice be?
  • Are you able to stop working when you want or do you feel driven to do just one more thing?
  • Do you have enough energy to keep up with the demands of your work?

You see Vallerand has found that for some of us work becomes an obsessive passion. It defines who we are and why we matter and as a result we have an uncontrollable urge to engage in it and feel compelled to undertake it. We start telling ourselves that we "must", "need" and "have to" to get things done. We find it hard to stop thinking about our work. And we get frustrated when we're prevented from working and persist even when it's risky or we know we should stop.

As a result his studies suggest we generally wind up feeling torn between our passion and the rest of our life leading to higher levels of negative affect over time and putting us at risk of burning ourselves out.

The alternative, Vallerand has found, is to cultivate a sense of harmonious passion for our work. Instead of defining ourselves by our work, we need to balance it with other equally important parts of our life and feel that we have a sense of control over what our work requires of us. This enables us to experience more intrinsic joy because we realize that we "want to", "get to" and "can't wait to" get things done. It helps us to disengage and switch off so we can enjoy other activities in our life and enables us to recognize when pursing an idea becomes too risky.

When work feels harmonious with the rest of our life Vallerand's studies suggest we experience higher level of physical health, psychological wellbeing, self-esteem, positive emotions, creativity, concentration and work satisfaction.

So what can you do to maintain a sense of harmonious passion when it comes to your work?

Scott Kauffman from the Imagination Institute suggests trying these four steps:

  • Schedule real breaks - Force yourself to get away from your work by scheduling other activities during the course of the day like lunch with a friend, a break to hit the gym or time after work or on weekends for family, friends, and activities you enjoy.

  • Don't take work home - If you can afford to, make it completely impossible to access your work once you leave the office. Try not to take your laptop home. Leave those files on your desk. Keep separate email accounts for home and work, and don't check work email when you're at home - put up an out-of-office message if you have to or there are some great new apps that will lock your computer during certain hours so you can't access it.
  • Change your thought patterns when you work - You may need to fake the mindset of a harmoniously passionate person until you make it. For example, convert thoughts of "must" and "need" to "want" and "choose." At first, this may feel awkward, but over time the obsessively passionate mindset will start to dissipate, and so will the behaviors associated with it.
  • Commit to a new hobby - Often, investing too much of yourself in one project is an indication of a negative core self. The more additional things outside of work you are involved in can contribute to a positive sense of self, lower the space your work performance takes up in your ego, and the smaller your chances of burnout. To hear Vallerand speaking about his research be sure to check out his Mind & It's Potential talk here.
  • To hear Vallerand speaking about his research be sure to check out his Mind & It's Potential talk here.

    What could you try today to make your passion for work more harmonious?