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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.

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Is Your Passion for Work Leading to Burnout?

Posted: 08/18/2011 8:25 am

Every business wants workers who passionately love their work. And for good reason: workers who are inspired are more productive, and passion can provide the energy necessary to fuel engagement amidst obstacles and setbacks. But while passion seems clearly desirable, recent psychological research suggests that not all forms are adaptive. In fact, some forms can be downright detrimental.

According to Robert J. Vallerand's Dualistic Model of Passion, passion has two main flavors: harmonious and obsessive. Those with harmonious passion engage in their work because it brings them intrinsic joy. They have a sense of control of their work, and their work is in harmony with their other activities in life. At the same time, they know when to disengage and are better at turning off the work switch when they wish to enjoy other activities, or when further engagement becomes too risky. As a result, their work doesn't conflict with the other areas of their lives. When they are at the opera, for instance, or spending time with their children, they aren't constantly thinking of work, and they don't report feeling guilty that they aren't working. Questionnaire items measuring harmonious passion include: "This activity reflects the qualities I like about myself," "This activity is in harmony with the other activities in my life," and "For me, it is a passion that I still manage to control."

Obsessive passion is a different story. Like those with harmonious passion, those with obsessive passion perceive their work as representing a passion for them and view their work as highly valued. A major difference is that they have an uncontrollable urge to engage in their work. As a result, they report feeling more conflict between their passion and the other activities in their life. Questionnaire items measuring obsessive passion include: "The urge is so strong. I can't help myself from doing this activity," "I am emotionally dependent on this activity," and "My mood depends on me being able to do this activity."

Both forms of passion are associated with very different outcomes. Harmonious passion is associated with higher levels of physical health, psychological well-being, self-reported self-esteem, positive emotions, creativity, concentration, flow, work satisfaction and increased congruence with other areas of one's life. These effects spill over into other areas. Because people with harmonious passion can actively disengage from work and experience other parts of their lives, they report general positive affect over time.

In contrast, those with obsessive passion display higher levels of negative affect over time and display more maladaptive behaviors. They report higher levels of negative affect during and after activity engagement -- they can hardly ever stop thinking about their work, and they get quite frustrated when they are prevented from working. They also persist when it's risky to do so (just like a pathological gambler). A reason for this is that their work forms a very large part of their self-concept. To protect themselves, they display more self-protective behaviors, such as aggression, especially when their identity is threatened. Those with obsessive passion also have a more negative image of themselves, being quicker to pair the word "unpleasant" with "self" than those showing lower levels of obsessive passion. This suggests that their persistence doesn't come from a place of intrinsic joy but an unstable ego.

These differences have implications for work burnout. A recent study investigated burnout (measured by emotional exhaustion) in two samples of nurses over a 6-month period, across two different countries. Obsessive passion increased the chances of burnout, while harmonious passion helped protect against burnout. The researchers identified some key factors explaining this relationship. Obsessive passion was associated with higher conflict with other life tasks and was unrelated to work satisfaction, while harmonious passion was associated with lower conflict and higher work satisfaction. Importantly, these effects held even after controlling for the number of hours worked. People with harmonious passion come to work refreshed and ready to tackle new problems, whereas those with obsessive passion are at much higher risk of experiencing burnout.

But isn't persistence a good thing? Many great works appear to have come about due to an obsessive focus on work to the exclusion of all else. The research suggests this may be a myth. It's important to distinguish between flexible and rigid forms of persistence. Those with obsessive passion rigidly persist even when it's no longer sensible to do so. Those with harmonious passion are much more flexible, and are ultimately more successful. This may explain why so many child prodigies fizzle out later in life, regardless of their talent. By being obsessively attached to their domain, they are increasing their chances of burning out.

In sum, the type of passion one has matters -- not just for work, but for many other areas of life. What kind of you passion do you have? Do you gain intrinsic satisfaction from your work, or do you feel as though you are constantly working to prove things to others? Do you feel a compulsive need to work, or are you easily able to disengage and enjoy other interests in life? Managers: What kind of passion are you getting out of your workers? Don't be fooled by hard workers -- some may be on the verge on burnout.

This post first appeared on HBR.org.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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