Changing Your Personality at Work Can Cause Stress and Burnout

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Before becoming a work-at-home copywriter four years ago, 32-year-old Dan Stelter of Chicago worked in IT. But he constantly struggled in the field, getting fired from one position and quitting another one.

The problem?

“I am definitely an introvert,” says Stelter, who explains he needed to get away from the politics of an office environment and does his best work independently. “I've learned I like long blocks of time uninterrupted. Working in a primarily extroverted role caused me to feel stressed.”

As it turns out, Stelter’s experience as an introvert working in a role that didn’t complement his personality may be more common than most people think.

According to psychologist Brian Little of University of Cambridge, though personality is at least partially genetic and therefore somewhat rigid, people can act against their natural selves for short periods of time as the occasion calls for it--in a theory Little has coined “free traits.”

Yet, when people are expected to suppress their inherent personalities for too long, they can risk stress and burnout, along with all the physical complications that often go along with that.

Sanna Balsari-Palsule, a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at the University of Cambridge who works with Little is currently investigating how people who work in positions that do not match their prominent personality traits are impacted.

To do this, Balsari-Palsule collaborated with Jon Jachimowicz of Columbia Business School to study approximately 300 employees at a marketing firm in the United Kingdom. More specifically, Balsari-Palsule and Jachimowicz analyzed the participants’ performance reviews and employee track records and then administered a personality test and a survey to gauge participant views about their work life.

Though the results of the research are still preliminary, it would seem people suffer from stress when they are consistently operating under high demand to act differently than what their innate impulses dictate. However, it was the extroverts (especially younger ones) who tended to experience more discomfort acting out of their nature as compared to their more reserved counterparts.

“I suspect that extroverts may at times experience greater difficulty than introverts as extroverts are relatively less conditioned to act out of character,” says Balsari-Palsule. “Extroversion can be a highly rewarded trait in Western society, and so from a young age, introverts may be highly accustomed to consciously--or unconsciously--deploying extroverted behaviors, so much that they become automatic responses to situations that demand them.”

In particular, those who are naturally gregarious but are required to do more independent work with less opportunity to socialize, reported lower job satisfaction.

Does this mean that an extrovert stuck in a position that denies him ample time to interact with others needs to change jobs or even careers to maintain peace of mind and general well-being?

Not necessarily.

Balsari-Palsule explains that there are ways to address the issue.

For instance, going to lunch with colleagues or making sure to set aside some time after work or on weekends to appease one’s need for social interaction can help rejuvenate an extrovert and help him or her recharge for work. Little refers to these mitigative measures as “restorative niches.”

It’s also important to note that introversion and extroversion aren’t always mutually exclusive in a given individual--meaning someone who is diffident in public or larger gatherings may naturally exhibit more extroverted qualities in small groups or among more intimate working peers.

“I am beginning to suspect that extroversion and introversion are not exclusive polarities...that while people have a preference for one point along this continuum, they have some flexibility in shifting to more extroverted or more introverted positions,” says George A. Boyd, a meditation teacher and the founder of Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies.

Balsari-Palsule thinks that a person can operate well in a position where he or she is expected to act out of character as long as certain supports are in place. In fact, it may even be beneficial.

“If individuals work in a supportive environment...acting counter to traits may be fairly straightforward and just part of the modus operandi of work,” says Balsari-Palsule. “In the workplace, pushing ourselves beyond the limits of our traits could lead to learning outcomes that we may otherwise miss out on if we were in jobs where there is complete synchrony.”

However, in the long run, if a job is just not offering an employee avenues of expression to the point where it’s leading to burnout and depression, it may be crucial to step back and reevaluate if it’s time to move on.

“My advice for individuals in this situation is to reflect on what's most important to you,” says career and life coach Jenn DeWall.

DeWall also speaks from personal experience: she left her corporate job, because she couldn’t be her more extroverted self.

“I left my corporate job to pursue a career that allowed me to be myself and empower others to leverage their own unique strengths,” says DeWall. “It was the best decision I made. My happiness increased and stress decreased, as I was finally able to stop judging myself.”

Written by Laura Kiesel for Main Street

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