Crisis Can Increase Occupational Calling for Nurses

black nurse during COVID-19
Topic(s): motivation, performance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2020)
Article: How Critical Activities within COVID-19 Intensive Care Units Increase Nurses’ Daily Occupational Calling
Authors: Y. Zhu, T. Chen, J. Wang, M. Wang, R. E. Johnson, Y. Jin
Reviewed by: David Facteau

Many workers feel a sense of calling in their work. Occupational calling is defined as a passion to use one’s talents to benefit society and a sense of meaningfulness that is derived from one’s work. During predictable circumstances, workers sense of occupational calling is thought to be unchanging over time. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way in which many of us conduct our work. New research conducted in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, examines how times of crisis may affect worker perceptions of occupational calling. 


New research (Zhu et al., 2020) argues that times of crisis may influence nurses’ perceptions of calling in a positive way. The COVID-19 pandemic created strain on healthcare systems across the world. Intensive care units (ICUs) were often overcrowded with COVID-19 patients, and these patients required effortful care and extreme attention from nurses. The authors argue that this change would move job importance to the forefront of the nurses’ minds and immediately pull their calling into focus. The COVID-19 pandemic may have also offered more opportunities for nurses to utilize life-saving skills, which could have deepened their personal connections to their jobs. 

However, occupational calling may also vary in nurses. Some nurses may hold a steady increase in their feelings of calling, while others may be more variable and experience high feelings of calling on one day and low feelings of calling on another. The authors make several propositions. First, nurses with higher prosocial motivation—the innate desire to benefit others—will experience higher perceptions of occupational calling and will be less variable in these perceptions. Second, nurses with higher perceptions of occupational calling will be better performers. And finally, nurses who experience higher variability in their feelings of occupational calling (i.e. feeling “called on” one day but less so on another day) will be worse performers compared to those who feel a steady level of calling. 


To test their hypotheses, the researchers surveyed 66 nurses and their two supervisors daily for five consecutive workdays. Participants worked in a large COVID-19 intensive care unit in Wuhan during the peak of the outbreak in China. Results demonstrated that occupational calling was higher during times of crisis (measured by number of resuscitations per day). Additionally, nurses differed in both average level and variability of occupational calling. These differences could be explained by nurses’ prosocial motivation, meaning that nurses higher in prosocial motivation not only experienced higher average levels of occupational calling, they were also less variable in these feelings, which subsequently predicted higher job performance. 


To boost employee perceptions of occupational calling, the authors suggest that employers can focus employee attention on the needs of others. This may be especially beneficial after the COVID-19 pandemic when normal circumstances and routines return. This suggestion comes with a caveat, as the results from this study suggest that high and stable levels of calling predict employee performance. The authors suggest that maintaining these high and stable levels of calling will require organizations to do two things. First, pay continuous attention to employee development, and second, help employees cultivate enduring passion for their jobs. 

Zhu, Y., Chen, T., Wang, J., Wang, M., Johnson, R. E., & Jin, Y. (2021). How critical activities within COVID-19 intensive care units increase nurses’ daily occupational calling. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(1), 4-14.