How Much Should You Care About Your Job? Here’s What Experts Say

Do you think about work when you’re off the clock? Do your boss’s demands take priority over your children's soccer games or date nights with your partner? Or are you working in a job you hate and make the least amount of effort? 

No matter where you’re at on your career journey, the question of how much you should care about your job is more complex than you’d think. With terms like ‘work-life balance,’ ‘dream job’ and ‘burnout’ flooding your LinkedIn feed, it’s easy to wonder if you might be tipping the scales in the wrong direction.

Hate your job, and work becomes a chore. Love your job a little too much, and you might end up giving it your all and miss out on other important aspects of life. 

So, what is the sweet spot and how do you achieve that? We spoke to three experts to get the answers.

There's no one perfect work-life balance

During ‘The Great Resignation’ of 2022, over 50 million workers left their jobs in search of better positions. Whether that was better pay, better training, better prospects, or a job that better met their lifestyle needs, many people felt that they had to move jobs to find the work-life balance they were hoping for.

Problem is, our lives are in a state of constant flux and balance can often feel elusive. 

According to Anne Genduso, leadership and career coach and founder of MPWR Services, the term ‘work-life balance’ is misleading. "Balance implies that you have a scale and that both sides of the scale are equal," Genduso says.

She prefers the terms “work-life integration” and “harmony” to remind people that life is never wholly balanced. When you have young children or need to care for aging parents, you may have to place your work on the backburner. Other times, your focus is on climbing the ladder or establishing yourself in a new field. 

Genduso, who works with mid-career women, says her clients all struggle with a “blend of work and life fulfillment,” and that's because work-life integration is always in flux. “If society has taught us to think about it as a balance of equality, you're going to feel like you’re chasing after something that doesn't exist,” she warns.

Board-certified licensed clinical psychologist and burnout coach Dr. Candice Schaefer, PhD, ABPP, agrees. “There's no one right balance for everything. There's no prescribed method; there's no one right way,” she says. In her coaching practice, she looks for “misalignments” in her clients’ values and what they want out of life. When she finds something that isn’t aligned, they work toward fixing it together.

Everyone’s needs are different, and identifying what you want at this moment in your life is the best way to find a job you can feel good about and become invested in.

But how invested is too invested?

Too much career focus creates a problematic entanglement

How do you know if you’re too invested in a job? There’s no easy definition, but two indicators you might look at are whether you're neglecting other areas of your life, and whether you're allowing work to be your main identity. Struggling to separate your identity from your career can put you on track to problems like workaholism, burnout, disillusionment and disappointment.

Psychologist Robert J. Vallerand has explored the impact of passion in our lives, and his theory, the Dualistic Model of Passion, seems to confirm that passion isn’t always healthy – despite employers putting it at the top of their list of things they want in their employees.

Vallerand identified two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive. Harmonious passion is when we’re able to separate our identity from our work – it’s important, but not all-encompassing. Obsessive passion, however, is when we become completely caught up in work and it becomes an all-consuming part of who we are, so we struggle to detach from it, even when we’re supposed to be relaxing.

Harmonious passion correlates with joy and motivation. Obsessive passion correlates with lower self-esteem and higher levels of burnout

Paul Cecala, GCDF, certified career coach and chief career navigator at Cecala Career Consultants, sees this type of negative effect in his clients who don’t know how to separate their identity from work. “[My clients] who tend to be what we would traditionally describe as workaholics tend to also have more anxiety, more stress, more anger, more frustration and less satisfaction in life overall.”

Schaefer calls this balance of passion a paradox. “Work is so much of our identity and what brings us fulfillment,” she says. “If you get too invested in your passion, it means that when things go sour at work or if you're in a toxic workplace it causes far more distress than for someone who has a balance of other things.” 

Schaefer defines burnout as “a mismatch ratio of demands to the resources to meet those demands.” She believes that people who come into a job ready to make a large impact are more prone to discouragement and stress as the job fails to meet their expectations.

Genduso agrees. “When you invest more of your effort into your job than into other areas of life — when you knock that harmony out of whack, it can lead to burnout and it can lead to identity issues,” she says. “You identify yourself completely with your job, and therefore, you also identify your worth and value as a human being [with] your job performance, your company, having a job. [If] you get laid off, or something is outside of your control, a project doesn't go as planned, then all of a sudden you feel like you're not successful, and your world comes crashing down because you completely tied your identity to this.”

When you don’t like your job, you can feel unfulfilled and unhealthy

What about the opposite end of the spectrum, when you’re no longer invested in your job at all? 

Besides the obvious issue of caring so little that you risk your job security, being under-invested can create a slew of health-related problems. 

Anger, poorer interpersonal skills and a lack of focus are some of the problems Cecala has observed in people who hate their jobs. “They generally have shorter fuses, so they're going to lash out more and lash out harder,” he says, adding that if you start releasing aggression in public or at home, that's a major symptom. 

Another symptom is lack of sleep. “People who dread going to work usually have trouble sleeping and sleep is the great thing that helps us regulate our emotions and our physical health,” notes Schaefer. “Having that sense of dread can cause other problems in life, not just at work.” 

Rust out is also a possibility. This is where you feel unfulfilled and unmotivated, leading to feelings of boredom and apathy. Like burnout, rust out can harm your health. It also has a complex relationship with burnout, especially if a job you hate now might be one you once loved and had a lot of ambition for. The first stage of burnout is enthusiasm, which happens before the honeymoon period gives way to feelings of stress, frustration and detachment – rust out – because the job is now starting to bother you. 

People who dread going to work in the morning are in this rust-out/ burnout phase. According to Genduso, “your physical health can start to decline because of the extra stress. You're dealing with cortisol in your body, and it has compounding results.” She adds that stress from disliking your work can bring about physical symptoms like stomach aches, headaches and ulcers.

But perhaps the most insidious result of caring too little is poor decision-making. “When you hate things, you make decisions based on getting away from the pain versus something that you really want to run towards,” says Genduso. “I see that a lot with job seekers who will just run and jump into the first job opportunity that looks slightly appealing without any sort of thought process behind it.”

Is one extreme worse than the other?

So what’s worse? Being so invested that your job defines you or being so detached that you dread your workday? The truth is both extremes can create similar issues with identity, health and wellbeing.

For Schaefer, being too invested might be worse, depending on your view. She says that not caring about work that much isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have other focal points in your life.  “As long as you have other things that fulfill you, and [you see] a job [as] more of a means to get fulfillment from other things [outside of work], that can be healthy.”

For Cecala, being under-invested takes the cake. “Caring too little is worse because it will impact on all aspects of your life. So if you're not enjoying what you do…or if you're working a full-time, eight-hour day job and you hate what you're doing, you're going to come home angry,” he says.

How to find the sweet spot

If you're not in an ideal place right now, these tips can bring you closer to a happy medium:

  • Keep working on it

Seeking that perfect work-life balance is futile and can only lead to disappointment. But according to Cecala, you can and should strive to find the closest thing to your ultimate happiness. “Are you ever going to find perfection? The answer obviously is no, but does that stop us from moving closer? Does that stop us from trying to get to perfect? No. We need to be continually working towards that, and the closer you get, the more fulfilled you'll be,” he says.

Genduso agrees, and also cautions against “binary thinking.” Instead of thinking that a job will only either be “perfect” or “awful,” she says you should discover your values and look at what the most important factors are for you.

  • Lower your expectations

For overachievers, Schaefer recommends lowering your expectations instead of raising the bar. “You can still feel fulfilled [and] be passionate about your work. It's just accepting a lot of the limitations around what you can do and lowering that bar a little bit.” 

  • Figure out come coping mechanisms

If you’re in a job you dislike, Schaefer recommends employing some coping mechanisms. These include setting boundaries, taking breaks and planning things to look forward to outside of work. Her job, for instance, doesn’t always fulfill her need for creativity, but she seeks that elsewhere to compensate.

Cecala’s tips for the over-invested include making time for family and relationships and finding flexibility in your work as the best ways to create fulfillment in work and life. He thinks hybrid and gig work is the way of the future and also promotes work stints and breaks, such as a 45-minute work stint coupled with a 10 to 15-minute break. 

  • Make a forward-looking plan

Having a solid plan to find a job you love or restore some balance in a work-heavy schedule can invigorate you with hope if you’re feeling stuck. “When you start to think, ‘Okay, this is what I want, this is where I want to go,’ that can build that sense of hope back up again. And when you don't have hope, and all you live in is dread, that's a really tough place to be,” Schaefer says. 

Taking a career aptitude test can help you better understand what you need and want from a job, and help you make a plan to get there. Recognizing there's a problem is the first step. From there, you can start to reevaluate your work and where it fits in your life, and begin the process of finding a better balance.

Cianna Garrison
Cianna Garrison holds a B.A. in English from Arizona State University and works as a freelance writer. She fell in love with psychology and personality type theory back in 2011. Since then, she has enjoyed continually learning about the 16 personality types. As an INFJ, she lives for the creative arts, and even when she isn’t working, she’s probably still writing.