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Mastery goals and how they affect work engagement and stress levels

At the end of a long working day, why do some individuals get carried away with work and lose track of time, whilst others feel worn out and can’t wait to leave the office?

While there are many factors contributing to work-related fatigue and disengagement, researchers from the Netherlands and Belgium focused on mastery-related goals and how they make us more motivated or stressed.

Poortvliet, Anseel and Theuwi conducted two studies looking at mastery-approach and mastery-avoidance goals.

The term ‘mastery-avoidance goals’ basically refers to the actions and goals set by employees to avoid doing worse than others.

For example, a salesperson may create mastery-avoidance goals to avoid being the worst-ranked salesperson of the month.

In contrast to avoidance, ‘mastery-approach goals’ are the goals set by an employee because of the desire to improve and excel.

For example, if a salesperson sets a goal to break their current personal best sales record, they are using a mastery-approach goal.

The studies

The two studies investigated the potential negative effects of mastery-avoidance goals by assessing their impact on fatigue and on perceptions of social support within an occupational setting, e.g. co-workers confiding in each other emotionally.

In the first study, data was collected from 220 respondents. Primary education organisations at both head office and local school levels were visited by a research assistant who administered and collected questionnaires from employees.

In the second study, surveys were distributed via email among general members of the Dutch workforce, generating 258 participants.

The findings

After collecting the data from both studies, the cross-sectional analysis proved that mastery-avoidance goals are indeed related to perceptions of poor social support and increased stress.

Study 1 specifically found that mastery-avoidance goals had a direct relationship with employees feeling detached from their job and this was related to feeling a lack of emotional support in the workplace.

Study 2 found that mastery-avoidance goals had a direct relationship with employees experiencing tiredness and fatigue.

Studies also found that work-related mastery-approach goals were positively linked to work engagement.

Employees who had developed work-related mastery-avoidance goals withdrew from workplace culture due to feeling a lack of emotional support and exhaustion. Comparatively, employees who functioned with work-related mastery-approach goals were invested in their work environment and felt emotionally supported.

Numerous previous studies have shown that goal-setting at work is one of the key foundations of wellbeing. Failure to achieve set goals, however, is one of the most prominent causes of stress. For this reason, failure to achieve mastery-approach goals may result in stress and a mastery-avoidance mindset.

A company looking to improve the ambition and work-quality of its employees should consider encouraging its staff to set mastery-approach goals and finding ways to provide practical and emotional support.


Poortvliet, P. M., Anseel, F., & Theuwis, F. (2015). Mastery-approach and mastery-avoidance goals and their relation with exhaustion and engagement at work: The roles of emotional and instrumental support. Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations, 29:2, 150-170. DOI:10.1080/02678373.2015.1031856

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