The underbelly of job purposing

The underbelly of job purposing

I have a confession. I’ve written and spoken, some might say ad nauseam, about the evidence-based benefits of job purposing. I’ve shared that job purposing, defined as helping others or a charitable cause through work, improves your job satisfaction, work performance, and mental health. It even makes you wealthier!

Yet, job purposing is not all sweetness and rainbows. It can hurt us.

Compassion fatigue

For starters, job purposing can trigger “compassion fatigue.” This ailment is a specific form of “occupational burnout” that is caused by excessive exposure to the suffering of others. Whether you call it compassion fatigue, occupational burnout or a sucky feeling, you don’t want it. In extreme cases, compassion fatigue makes us calloused, hopeless, stressed, anxious and incapable of enjoyment. Because job purposing sensitizes us to the suffering around us, technically speaking, it can turn us into such miserable ogres. Lovely.

Before you swear off job purposing, let me make three points. First, the majority of those charged to respond to human physical suffering upfront fulltime year after year, known as medical professionals, don’t have compassion fatigue. And compassion fatigue is less common in every other profession. It’s unlikely that sprinkling caring actions into your sales, engineering or other non-healthcare job will tip you into compassion fatigue.

Second, compassion fatigue has less to do with the presence of compassion, defined as caring about others, and more to do with the inherent distress of not acting on it. In fact, “compassion fatigue” is a misnomer. We don’t tire of serving others. What taxes our mental health is helplessness in the face of suffering. Doing nothing about the pain you witness at work is what increases your risk of compassion fatigue. Job purposing, then, is more likely to prevent than to precipitate compassion fatigue.

Third, while caring too much for others carries a small risk of undermining your well-being, work that cares for nothing beyond ourselves almost certainly will (see prior post).


Even if job purposing doesn’t trigger burnout, it can derail your career progression or professional success. It demands attention and can, therefore, leave other pursuits shortchanged.

In fact, research by Wharton’s Adam Grant finds that those who routinely serve others or a charitable cause with no expectation of a benefit are more likely than their less-giving counterparts to end up at the bottom of the success ladder.  Stay with me, though. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Consistent with my boasting about the benefits of job purposing, Grant found that those with giving behaviors were also more likely to populate the top of the success ladder. Job purposing doesn’t derail your professional success. It typically drives it. However, done improperly, it can do the opposite.

How, then, does one make sure our job purposing supports, as opposed to undermines, our success?

Thankfully, a group of researchers uncovered how one group achieves both exemplary social impact and personal success: Honorees of the Caring Canadian Award. These beneficent beings do things like establish a program that helps underprivileged girls while raising five children and running a successful marble business.

How the heck do these exemplary givers do it?

First, they aim high. Compared to non-award winners, exemplary givers have lofty ambitions for their social purpose. That makes sense. They won an award for that! What might surprise you is that they are also more personally ambitious than the less-giving comparison group. They aspire to more recognition, power, wealth than their less-giving peers.

The lesson? Continue to dream about climbing the corporate ladder, starting your own enterprise or winning the salesperson of the year award. Squashing these ambitions will not support successful job purposing. Adam Grant explains, “Most people assume that self-interest and other-interest are opposite ends of one continuum. Yet in my studies of what drives people at work, I’ve consistently found that self-interest and other-interest are completely independent motivations: you can have both of them at the same time.”(Give and Take, Penguin Books, 2014).

Second, exemplary givers don’t focus on small conflicts. If you can’t decide whether to spend the afternoon helping a new hire or updating your resume, you might be thinking too small. Does it help to resolve the conflict by asking instead “Which will support my long-term goal of getting my company to take a leadership role in reversing climate change?” Asking this grander question helps clarify that the smarter use of time is crafting a promotion-worthy resume.

Third, if there’s a direct conflict between their social-purpose and self-serving goals, exemplary givers look the other way. Specifically, they look for a third way that promotes both aims. Imagine a manager who has a budget that can cover either sponsoring a climate-change conference or sending team members to a teambuilding training. If she’s an exemplary giver, she might invite her team to attend the training and apply their new skills to raise funds for the conference.


The reason job purposing necessarily involves risk is best explained by University of Houston professor and New York Times bestselling author, Brené Brown, “If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

The only way to stay perfectly safe from compassion fatigue and self-neglect is to wall ourselves away from the hardships of the world. But, the cost of this choice is the most devastating pain of all: A meager and meaningless life. Despite its inherent risks, or maybe because of them, job purposing remains the path to a fully-lived and fulfilling work life.


Learn more about Bea's book, Do Good at Work.

Watch Bea's TEDx talk.

Don't miss the next post. Subscribe!

2 Responses

  1. Great insight! Thanks for helping me understand and address this very real “sucky” feeling!

    1. Glad it helped, Annette. In researching and writing this post, I uncovered that I also have a touch of compassion fatigue — related to the Venezuela situation (where I have family) and a particular child-to-be in my social circle who will soon be born into an alarmingly troubling situation. I suppose some amount of compassion fatigue is a side effect of life itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *