November 18, 2020

Burning passion or burnout

“Who do I want to hire? Well, obviously, I need someone who has no other serious time or family commitments. We need someone who will just live and breathe this job and give it 200% 24/7/365.”

This is an actual quote from an actual conversation I had with a manager many years ago. He was looking to hire an office manager for his department, a position he had been having an increasingly difficult time keeping filled.

I can’t say I’m too surprised. As our conversation continued, it became apparent that he didn’t want an employee so much as he wanted an indentured servant.

Mind you, this is not the way he explained it himself.

The way he put it was, “I need someone with burning passion for this job.”

To which I thought, “What kind of passion are you talking about?”

Because organizational research has clearly shown there is a good kind and a bad kind.[1]

The good kind is called harmonious passion because we keep it in harmony with the rest of life. Those of us with harmonious passion work because it brings us joy. But we don’t conflate that joy with our sense of self-worth or main purpose on the planet.

We all want to love what we do and consider it important and valuable enough to spend significant time and energy doing it. If you or I were to imagine our lives as a pie, work would be one, big, satisfying slice.

Still, for those of us with harmonious passion, work is only one slice. We know when to disengage and let other things take priority, like family and relationships, hobbies and sports, personal health and well-being, and community.

The bad kind, obsessive passion, just takes over the whole pie. We bring work home every night and every weekend and make it our personal god. Even when we’re not physically at work, our minds stay there to obsess over the next meeting, the next project, the next accomplishment.

And yet, oddly, the work itself is not really the target of this type of obsession. What we’re really after are the ego strokes that come from work-related accomplishments. We crave the “atta boy/girl” adulations which become the sole source of our self-worth.

There’s no real joy in this kind of obsession and – even more importantly – no sense of control.[2]

With harmonious passion, we drive ourselves to accomplish important projects. With obsessive passion, our work ends us driving us toward a complete breakdown in physical and mental health and burnout.

Burning passion or Burnout

Photograph by Free Nature Stock Images from Pexels

When burning passion burns out

For her doctoral research at BI Norwegian Business School, Ide Katrine Birkeland followed 1,200 Norwegian workers for almost a year. [3] Three times over that time frame, Birkeland asked the workers to complete a research-validated survey about their passion for work, their sense of well-being, and how they viewed their workplace environment.

Her study showed that more than four out of ten workers scored high for harmonious passion while one or two scored high for obsessive passion. Rates of obsessive passion were higher in men than women.

Birkeland’s study corroborated what several other researchers have found: scorchingly obsessive passion eventually leads to burnout.

Burnout is characterized by dragging exhaustion, dwindling productivity, and decreased interest or concern. For instance, healthcare workers experiencing burnout will start feeling “compassion fatigue,” a flagging concern for their patients.

Whereas obsessive passion (OP) stokes the fires of burnout, harmonious passion (HP) does not. Harmoniously passionate workers get all the upsides of workplace engagement with very little downside.  

Comparing Obsessive and Harmonious passion:

Burning passion or burnout

Photograph by skitterphoto on Pexels

Comparing Harmonious and Obsessive Passion

Harmonious Passion

  • Workers choose to engage in work activities that they love or enjoy  
  • Can disengage from work
  • Focus is on enjoyment and fulfillment
  • Fosters collaboration with colleagues
  • Work is outside of one’s core identity
  • Leads to healthy work-life balance
  • Protects against burnout

Obsessive Passion

  • Workers feel compelled to engage in work activities to win attention and success
  • Cannot disengage from work
  • Focus is on winning and looking good
  • Fosters competition and conflict with colleagues
  • Work is central to one’s core identity
  • Leads to unhealthy work-life balance
  • Leads to burnout

Conclusion:

While harmonious passion can fuel creativity and productivity in the workplace, obsessive passion eventually leads to burnout. In part 2 of this series, we will learn the best ways to transition from the latter to the former.


  1. Forest, J., Mageau, G. A., Sarrazin, C., & Morin, E. M. (2011). “Work is my passion”: The different affective, behavioural, and cognitive consequences of harmonious and obsessive passion toward work. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l'Administration, 28(1), 27-40.
  2. Vallerand, R. J. (2010). On passion for life activities: The dualistic model of passion. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 42, pp. 97-193). Academic Press.
  3. Birkeland, I. K., Richardsen, A. M., & Dysvik, A. (2018). The Role of passion and support perceptions in changing burnout: A Johnson-Neyman approach. International Journal of Stress Management, 25(2), 163-180.
  4. Birkeland, I. K., & Nerstad, C. (2016). Incivility Is (Not) the Very Essence of Love: Passion for Work and Incivility Instigation. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 21(1), 77-90. doi: 10.1037/a0039389

About the author 

Pamela Coburn-Litvak

Pam is a neuroscientist, author, speaker, and certified executive coach. Her research articles have been published in scientific journals including Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior.

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