Build Love In
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Build Love In

When Work Breaks Your Heart

Have you ever experienced heartbreak at work? No, I am not talking about the juicy dramas involved in unrequited flirtations around the water cooler. When I speak of heartbreak at work, I mean the deep despair that comes from the realisation that your organisation will not reciprocate the devotion you have invested, and may never care for you in any meaningful way. It is the grief that arises when you realise you have no energy left to dedicate to another failed change effort or any hope that things will ever be different. And while these feelings are described in sterile HR speak as ‘disengagement’, the pain that comes from knowing my organisation and I are not living to their true potential is profound. This is the reality of heartbreak at work.

Engagement Is Reciprocal

There has been a substantial increase in interest in employee engagement since the pandemic began. Managers everywhere have worked hard to find ways to keep their hybrid or WFH staff motivated and committed. Why? Because employee engagement, the extent to which staff feel connected to the company, is critical for success. The extent to which employees feel enmeshed within the organisation will determine the level of effort they expend and the extent of innovative work behaviours they display. Where staff feel that their wellbeing is intimately connected with the organisation’s success, they will work hard and put their heart and head into ensuring the latter. In this way, employee engagement is the fuel for individual motivation, and as highlighted by Burke and Litwin (1992), individual motivation is the prime determinant of the organisation’s productivity and performance.

Signs of An Unhealthy Relationship

But what happens when an employee begins to sense that there is very little concern for their wellbeing at work? What is the result when the organisation is all take, take, take, without giving any care in return? What if the organisation (through the managers and leaders):

  • Send mixed messages about what is expected of you?
  • Don’t support you to do the things you enjoy and are great at?
  • Don’t provide any recognition or praise for the work you do?
  • Ignore your opinions or suggestions?
  • Neglect to provide you with any feedback on progress?
  • Prevent you from undertaking activities where you could learn and grow?

Does this sound like an unhealthy relationship? You bet it is!

This Is How A Heart Breaks

And what if you entered this relationship with gusto and generosity, putting your heart and soul into making the organisation great? What if you had invested long hours and sacrificed personal pleasure to make it the best it could be? How would you feel when all you received in return was disdain?

I suspect if this were any other relationship, you would feel shattered. All your hopes and dreams would be dashed, and the rosy vision for a mutually fulfilling future would be replaced with despair at the reality of the one-sided effort. For those who were brave (or naïve) enough to put their spirit and soul into their work, the result is heartbreak.

Does Disengagement Breed Hate?

In his article in Forbes magazine, Jack Kelly[1] suggests that the outcome of this heartbreak is active hateful behaviours, such as gossip, rudeness, and sabotage — not dissimilar to a jilted ex hiding old prawn shells in the culprit’s curtain hems or cupboards. This kind of toxic reaction equates to the corrosive energy described by Bruch and Vogel[2]. However, my experience is very different and indicates that the oppositive of love is not hate but apathy. For me, heartbreak manifests as a lack of hope in any ability to make a difference and a deep sense of cynicism at any change efforts. It is perfectly described by Burch and Vogel as resigned inertia[3]. I have put everything into my work but been left wanting, and now there is nothing left to give but grief for lost possibilities. I am afraid that if I participate, I will only be setting myself up for more hurt, so I have given up and decided to preserve my energy and sanity.

Heartbreak Is The Norm

There is one very alarming irony in my situation, and that is I appear not to be alone in my heartbreak. Recent Gallup poll results show that only one-third of workers are committed to their organisations[4]. Most others have resigned themselves to the fact that there is no future for them with the organisation and are just showing up and going through the motions. They are not feeling the love and are certainly not giving it anymore either. Again, I wonder how much this sounds like other unsatisfying relationships you have had?

Disengagement Is Dehumanizing

So, while HR professionals and academics may still use the term disengagement to describe this situation, I think the term heartbreak is more accurate. Using the word disengagement itself seems cold and uncaring when it is likely that those classified as disengaged are actually really hurting. And perhaps this is why there is such a high rate of disengagement in the first place — because it is seen as a scientific statistic and not as a desperate human condition. It is seen as simply a performance indicator and not a situation full of lost hope and profound pain.

At one stage, these people may have believed in the greatness of their organisation, and worked hard to achieve the best for it, their colleagues and themselves. All that effort appears to have come to nothing, and all their greatest aspirations are treated with contempt (albeit unconsciously). This is a clear case of unrequited love.

Love In The Workplace

In my previous article, I have discussed the notion of there being love at work and how we can define love in the business context. I suggest that love at work is not the presence of fluffy and feel-good emotions, although these can be a natural consequence. In business, love is:

  • Action
  • Taken to create happiness and remove suffering
  • For the purpose of understanding and achieving true potential.

When you look at Gallup’s Q12[5] — the items that make up the measure of employee engagement — it is clear that all of these contribute to the achievement of potential — individual and collective:

1. I know what is expected of me at work.

2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.

3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.

5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.

6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

7. At work, my opinions seem to count.

8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.

9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.

10. I have a best friend at work.

11. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.

12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

Each and every one of these actions is an expression of the love described above.

Without these actions, it is understandable that employees are left feeling unloved and lonely.

Without these acts of love, it is understandable that employees will feel heartbroken and detach their emotional investment in order to save themselves further pain. This withdrawal leads to devastating outcomes — both the individual and the organisation do not get to live up to their full potential. Wasted potential is more than just neglectful — it is criminal.

So perhaps it is time to bring the words love and heart into our professional lexicon and enable the full human tragedy of disengagement to be told.

Will This Organisation Break My Heart?

Here’s the rub — just like any other relationship, you don’t know if the organisation you are about to enter will love you back until you are in it and until you have given it all you have. Sure, you can read the annual reports, quiz your future manager on the Q12 and seek out advice from ex-employees on social media. Still, none of this accounts for the actions that you will take to make this relationship a valuable one.

This is where the dual nature of responsibility resides. For you can’t expect your company to provide you with all you need if you don’t make your needs clear and work to instigate change where required. Even couples going through difficult times usually end up in therapy to understand disagreements and improve their ability to connect and meet each other’s needs. If you are willing to do this for your personal relationships, you must also be willing to do this for your professional ones. Otherwise, it could be suggested that you never really did care for the organisation in the first place.

Because even if the organisation is unwilling to meet you halfway or is adamant that no further effort will be offered, you still need to do all you can to maintain your integrity and sense of agency. That is until it is time to leave.

You Deserve Love

The following pieces of advice could well be taken from a Dear Abby column, but are just as relevant to anyone seeking happiness in a personal relationship as they are to someone seeking fulfilment at work. So here goes….

Just like every other human on the planet, you deserve love.

And your time is far too precious to be stuck in a place that will not support you to be the very best you can be.

So, if you can no longer put your heart into something, then it is time to take yourself out of it[6].

Until such time that you find true love, here is a prayer that I wrote that might help heal your heart and remind you of the power that you have regardless of where you are.

[1] Kelly, J. (2022, February 16). What Business Leaders Need To Do About The Great Disengagement At Work. Forbes.

[2] Bruch, H., & Vogel, B. (2011). Fully Charged: How Great Leaders Boost Their Organization’s Energy and Ignite High Performance. Harvard Business Review Press.

[3] Bruch, H., & Vogel, B. (2011). Fully Charged: How Great Leaders Boost Their Organization’s Energy and Ignite High Performance. Harvard Business Review Press.

[4] Gallup, Inc. (2022, April 21). Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey — Gallup. Gallup.Com.

[5] Gallup, Inc. (2022, April 21). Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey — Gallup. Gallup.Com.

[6] Above all, be true to yourself, and if you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it. (2013, April 16). Tiny Buddha.

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Belinda Tobin

Belinda Tobin

Author. Series Executive Producer of the Future Sex Love Art Projekt. Founder of The 3rd-Edge and The Addiction Healing Pathway.