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How Knowing Your Values Lowers Your Stress

Kandi Wiens

Kandi Wiens

May 2023

Few things can burn you out faster than a values mismatch between you and your organization. This is the kind of situation where your core beliefs and guiding principles are in conflict with the values of your workplace. 

Here’s an example: I’ve seen a number of healthcare organizations who say that patient safety is their top value. Yet their entire compensation structure is built upon physician productivity, which is measured by how many patients are seen in a day. This creates a lot of tension for physicians who need more time with their patients in order to achieve the highest standards of patient care, yet whose organizations are encouraging them to maximize productivity and revenue—and who are also trying to maximize their own compensation. If you’ve ever wondered why your doctor seems burned out, this could be why.  

Sometimes, values mismatches are obvious—an employer asks you to do something unethical, for example—while others require some self-reflection to uncover. If you find that you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout and you’re not entirely sure why, it could be due to a values mismatch percolating beneath your conscious awareness. One of my coaching clients, for example, identified “ambition, unparalleled dedication, and endurance” as his top values—never mind that he’d sought out coaching because only five months into a new role, he was feeling unmotivated, ineffective, and exhausted. Through our work together, it soon became apparent that his true values were more about collaboration, creativity, and service—and he admitted that he hadn’t even wanted his new job. He had pursued it in an effort to please other people, and now the incongruence between his true values and his job requirements was putting him on the fast track to burnout. Other times (as in, I see this a lot!), values mismatches happen because there’s a discrepancy between an organization’s espoused values (what they say in their mission statement) and their enacted values (how they actually act). 

Whatever the cause, values mismatches are especially dangerous because their effects cut to our core. When your values are threatened, you’re being asked to turn your back on something fundamental to your identity. That’s why values mismatches push our stress levels into the danger zone, and why they put us at high risk of burnout. Research has found that employees experiencing values clashes with their organization suffer from poorer performance, lower productivity, lower well-being all around, and are more likely to quit than employees whose values align with their organization’s. 

To avoid harmful values mismatches, the first step is to get an accurate read on your core beliefs and guiding principles. Try this quick self-reflection exercise to gain clarity on your own core values and internal operating system:

  1. I feel a sense of inspiration at work when ________________.
  2. What I love most about my work is ________________.
  3. I am motivated to be ________________ at work.
  4. I am motivated to do ________________ at work.
  5. Something I would never do at work, no matter what, is ________________.
  6. My work enables me to contribute [list specific actions, products, services, etc.] so that [list outcomes for you and for the people you serve].
  7. I feel most fulfilled and satisfied at work when ________________.
  8. I feel most emotionally engaged at work when ________________.
  9. ________________ reminds me of the purpose or meaning in my work. (This could be an action you engage in, or it could be a person.)

Your values form the scaffolding of who you are, what you believe in, what you find meaningful, and what you want to contribute. Knowing what truly matters to you and motivates you, what forms the contours of your purpose and how you go about enacting it, and what you are (and aren’t) willing to sacrifice for your job, is all mission-critical information. Use it as your North Star as you go about identifying and pursuing the work you are meant to do in the world. Workers whose values are in alignment with their organization’s not only have a lower risk of burnout, they are much more likely to be mission-driven, engaged, effective, and happy.

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