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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 WHO noted that the syndrome was 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.

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 leveragi