The path to happiness is to do what you are passionate about. If you are passionate about your work, it doesn’t feel like work anymore. Find your passion. Have you ever heard any of these statements? I bet you did. Being passionate about one’s work has become a mantra of the 21st century. I admit I’m one of those who also promote it, though admittedly with a twist. While most people tell you to find your passion, I suggest you stop searching and get passionate about whatever you do right now. It can be done, believe me.
But is the passion for your work the remedy to all your life problems? No. In fact, passion can get you into serious trouble. Not every passion has a positive impact on your well-being. For many people, passion is a one-way ticket to depression and burnout.
Jennifer Moss concludes that passion-driven or caregiving roles such as nurses and doctors are more prone to burnout than other occupations. Even the suicide rates among caregivers are significantly higher than in the rest of the population.
The problem is that passion is a double-edged sword. When your work is also your passion, it gives you the motivation and the drive to keep going. It fills you with energy and satisfaction. If things go well, that is. If things start to go wrong, nothing works as it should, then the passion turns against you. Instead of taking a break and reevaluating your options, you double down. You start working harder and are wholly consumed by the work you are passionate about. You relegate the rest of your life to the sidelines. You work harder, things are still bad, and you don’t allow yourself any reprieve. Something that used to be exciting and engaging becomes exhausting and overwhelming. These are ideal circumstances for burnout.
WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) under a section “QD85 Burn-out” has this definition. “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
If you find yourself that something you’ve been passionate about leaves you exhausted, you don’t care about it as much anymore, and you see that your efficacy is slipping, you need to make a hard stop and reconsider what you are doing.
Even though passion can turn bad, it is still the safest bet for a good life. When it comes to burnout, it is not necessarily you who is the only problem. The organization of work and management has a significant role. According to Gallup research, the five most frequent reasons for burnout are:
Unfair treatment at work – working in an environment without psychological safety is very stressful. When the employees can’t trust their managers and their teams, there is no way they would look forward to coming to work. Unfair treatment doesn’t need to be too overt. It includes things like favoritism, biases, unfair compensation, lack of inclusiveness, and lack of sense of belonging.
Unmanageable workload – having more work than can be reasonably handled in the allotted time leads to overtimes, feeling of being overwhelmed, and stress of not being able to do their job according to expectations. This has a very negative impact on productivity as the person can’t focus, has low confidence, and feels hopeless.
Lack of role clarity – not having a clear understanding of your role, your manager’s expectations and the organization can bring up anxiety. If you don’t know whether you are doing what you are supposed to, whether you are fulfilling expectations, you can be in constant worry about job security. You feel lost, useless, dispensable.
Lack of communication and support from a manager – not having a strong manager who cares about you, who listens, and who has your back if something goes wrong is another way to bring more stress into your life. If your manager is negligent, aggressive, doesn’t care about you, or doesn’t even communicate at all, you are much more likely to suffer burnout.
Unreasonable time pressure – everything should be done as soon as possible. Those who feel that there is never enough time to do everything they are supposed to, who are presented by unrealistic timelines, and constantly bullied by management to deliver the work in timeframes that is just not physically possible, live in constant stress. These unrealistic constraints are often self-imposed by the organization, the manager, or even the person who wants to look good.
It should be evident that the real root cause of the burnout is not the person but the environment. Some people are certainly more susceptible to burnout than others, but it would be a mistake to blame the employees. The only role you as an employee play in this is your decision to work in that particular environment. Look for the signs of an unhealthy workplace, and don’t let it consume you.
Jennifer Moss uses a visual example given to her by the foremost expert on burnout, Christina Maslach. Picture canaries in a coal mine. They are healthy birds, singing away as they make their way into the cave. But, when they come out full of soot and disease, no longer singing, can you imagine us asking why the canaries made themselves sick? No, because the answer would be obvious. The coal mine is making the birds sick.
Harmonious and Obsessive Passion
Passion is defined as a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that people love, find important, and in which they invest time and energy in. According to Robert J. Vallerand and his Dualistic Model of Passion, there are two types of passion, harmonious and obsessive.
People having harmonious passion are engaged without negative consequences. Engagement with what they are passionate about brings them inner joy. They have their passion under control and can combine it well with other aspects of their lives. They know when to stop.
People with obsessive passion are a different story. They love what they do, are passionate about it, and are, well, obsessed with it. They don’t have their passion under control. They can’t stop working or being engaged in their passion. There is a clear negative impact of their passion on the other aspects of their lives. They are emotionally dependent on the activity and can’t help themselves.
Harmonious passion leads to flourishing, psychological well-being, physical health, harmonious relationships, positive emotions, self-esteem, flow, work satisfaction. On the other hand, obsessive passion leads to an inability to focus on anything else, frustration, maladaptive behavior, and aggression when their passion is threatened. Obsessive passion is linked to their ego. When their passion is threatened, their ego is threatened too. Obsessive passion can lead to genuinely self-destructive behavior, for example, pathological gambling.
The team around Robert J. Vallerand supports the dualistic approach to passion and its impact on burnout with their research. Those being obsessively passionate display rigid persistence. There is no flexibility for them to balance this one passion with anything else. It is the uncontrollable urge that drives them. Since they often engage in the activity even when they shouldn’t, there is a higher chance they will feel dissatisfaction, guilt, and other negative emotions once they finish the activity.
Harmonious passion leads people to engage in the activity willingly without the obsessive urge to do so. Individuals are not compelled but instead choose to pursue a passion. The activity still occupies a significant portion of their lives but is in harmony with the rest.
Putting it all together
Passion is a predictor of burnout that sets things in motion by triggering a sequence where other psychological aspects like satisfaction and conflict are activated. These then lead to burnout. Obsessive passion predicts conflict between work and other life activities. What is worse, obsessive passion doesn’t lead to satisfaction. It means a person is driven to keep working on their passion, sacrificing other parts of life without getting any positive benefit out of it. On the other hand, harmonious passion predicts work satisfaction, which is an excellent antidote to burnout.
So, yes, work hard, focus on mastery, experience flow, and become passionate about your work. As long as you have your passion under control and won’t let it take over your life completely, you will be satisfied with your life, and you will flourish.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Have you experienced situations where passion led to burnout? Have you experienced obsessive passion yourself? What have you done? How do you ensure that your passion don’t end up in disaster?
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