When Passion Leads to Burnout - HBR

The WHO noted that the burnout syndrome 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. It is now globally recognized as a syndrome, not a disease.


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. Data suggest 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. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional and physical exhaustion, and loss of cognitive focus are associated with burnout. On top, technology advancements, in any industry, can be both helpful and harmful : “In our ‘always on’ culture, we struggle with digital boundaries,” especially when we feel love our work. 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.”


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, 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.


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