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When Passion Leads to Burnout

You’ve no doubt heard the well-worn advice that “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” It’s a nice idea but a total myth.

When we equate work we love with “not really working,” it propagates a belief that if we love it so much, we should do more of it — all of the time, actually. Who needs a day off when you’re not really working?! There’s a whole cottage industry committed to proliferating this mindset — from books, to talks, and even kitsch stores selling piles of “Work is Bliss” quotes on merchandise.

This type of mentality leads to burnout, and the consequences can be both dire and hard to detect.

As an expert in workplace happiness and someone who speaks internationally about workplace well-being, it’s easy for me to be consumed by my passion for the topic.

I love my work, and as such, can easily fall victim to burnout. It’s one of the ironies of my job. Yet, I would never claim that it doesn’t ever feel like work. It is more like being involved in a complicated love affair.

One minute it’s thrilling, passionate, engaging. The next, it’s exhausting and overwhelming, and I feel like I need a break.

For decades, the term “burnout” has been deprioritized — wrongly accused of being some made-up, first-world crisis, most likely drummed up by millennials and Gen Zers who want more work-life balance. The truth is, the younger workforce has it right. And as they increase the demand for more meaningful work (even claiming they’ll take 32% less pay for the trade-off), burnout — specifically purpose-driven burnout — will continue to be a growing concern.

In a Gallup survey of 7,500 full-time employees, 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while 63% said they experience it sometimes.

Recently, The World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, IDC-11, claiming that it “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context…a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed…”

The ICD-11 was drafted in response to recommendations from global health experts with an intended goal of ending the debate over how to define burnout and whether it should be considered a medical condition.

It will now be globally recognized as a syndrome, not a disease, but the clear definition from the WHO should increase the number of healthcare providers and insurers who acknowledge, treat, and cover the symptoms.

While burnout can affect anyone, at any age, in any industry, it’s important to note that there are certain sectors and roles that are at increased risk, and purpose-driven work — that is work people love and feel passionately about — is one of them.

According to a study published in the Journal of Personality, this type of labor can breed obsessive — versus harmonious — passion, which predicts an increase of conflict, and thus burnout.

On The Mayo Clinic’s list of burnout risks, two out of six are related to this mindset: “You identify so strongly with work that you lack balance between your work life and your personal life” and/or “You work in a helping profession”.

A Canadian study analyzed responses from 3,715 employees across 12 organizations and found that employees driven by purpose are significantly more stressed and score lower for well-being, resilience, and self-efficacy than those who are not.

In an interview I had with David Whiteside, who has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and is research director at Plasticity Labs, he emphasized that “despite the clear benefits of feeling meaningfully connected to your work, our data suggests that there are often real and undiscussed complications of purpose-driven work on employees’ health that can be related to the experience of burnout long-term.”

Mission-focused executives, non-profit employees, teachers/principals, nurses, and physicians are some of the people most at-risk for burnout.

Edward Ellison, a medical doctor and co-CEO of The Permanente Federation, wrote about the massive negative impacts of physician burnout in the Annals of Internal Medicine: “Beyond the anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional and physical exhaustion, and loss of cognitive focus associated with physician burnout,” he noted, “an estimated 300 to 400 U.S. physicians take their own lives every year” — a suicide rate dramatically higher than that of the general public, 40% higher for men and 130% higher for women.

A Dutch study found that female physicians experience more patient empathy and, as a consequence, higher levels and deeper experiences of burnout — one hypothesis for the alarmingly high suicide rates.

Beyond the care-giving industries, burnout can show up when leaders equate long hours with getting ahead, when there’s an implicit expectation that staff should come to work despite mental and physical illness, and when production-focused, remote, and inside sales environments tend to push relationship-building to the back burner, which has been shown to increase loneliness.

In an effort to balance harmonious versus obsessive passion, Dr. Ellison believes in leveraging new technologies, such as innovations in artificial intelligence and automation, for example, to help streamline his own organization’s medical record-keeping. But technology advancements, in any industry, can be both helpful and harmful, according to Amy Blankson, founder and CEO of Positive Digital Culture.

“In our ‘always on’ culture, we struggle with digital boundaries,” especially when we feel love our work, she explained. “More than 50% of U.S. employees feel like they have to check their email after 11 pm to keep up with work. As a result, burnout is on the rise and engagement is decreasing.” One study found that health information technology increased burnout in 70% of doctors surveyed.

So, what can leaders do to prevent purpose-driven employees in their own organizations from suffering?

Dr. Ellison stresses that they can mitigate this “always-on” mindset by being aware of when passion becomes a double-edged sword. “If you are so inspired to do what you do, then you’re not necessarily good at setting boundaries. We need to teach people that setting boundaries is OK. It’s not selfish. It’s actually selfless. It allows you to be more effective at what you do, and to better [help] those you wish to serve.”

Dr. Caroline Elton, a vocational psychologist and the author of Also Human, agrees that it’s the responsibility of leaders “to keep an eye on the well-being of their staff.” She suggests specific tactics that include monitoring “indirect indices,” such as employee absences and turnover, as well as having clear policies in place so that bullying, undermining, and even whistleblowing can be dealt with without people feeling that they are putting their jobs on the line.

Dr. Elton was clear that, although self-awareness and -agency are important, exhausted workers should not shoulder the burden of solving this problem. She believes it’s a systemic issue and that leaders may want to “ditch the ’R’ word” — resilient — because it suggests that individuals should be able to avoid or recover from burnout on their own.

Now that the WHO has put out a clear definition of burnout and acknowledged it as a legitimate threat, organizations can focus on the measurement, programming, and support tools that will sprout from the syndrome designation.

At the end of the day, everyone wants to go home to our personal lives feeling inspired and fueled by a day of passionate engagement in purposeful work. This is clearly preferable to monotony and boredom, which can also cause burnout.

But we have to be careful: When it feels like your passion for work — or that of your employees —has become all-consuming, it might be time to take — or to offer — a break.

Jennifer Moss is a workplace expert, international public speaker, and award-winning author. She is the bestselling and award-winning author of Unlocking Happiness at Work.

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