December 9, 2020

Burning passion or burnout

A recap of harmonious vs. obsessive passion

In part 1 of this series, we learned that passion for our work can be either good or bad. In organizational research, the good kind is termed harmonious passion (HP), and the bad kind is obsessive passion (OP)

Harmonious vs. 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

What can – and can’t – be done about obsessive passion

In her research study of 1,200 Norwegian workers, Ide Katrine Birkeland was looking for something important.[1]

She was looking for interventions that might break the link between obsessive passion and burnout. There were two strong contenders: support received from work colleagues and/or supervisors and having a “mastery” climate at work.

The good news was that social support from one’s peers and/or manager did seem to mitigate burnout for those who struggle with obsessive passion. The bad news: it only did so for those with low or moderate OP levels. With high OP levels, no amount of social support helped.

Similarly, a “mastery” climate, one in which self-development and collaboration are encouraged, was helpful only to those with low or moderate OP levels. High OP-ers prefer a “performance” climate which encourages rivalry and competition and where the top dog gets all the glory. High OP-ers act even more uncivil and rude to their colleagues in a mastery climate.[2] Their personal values simply don’t align with a company that values collaboration over competition.

Which kind of passion do you have?

Do you have HP or OP? Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman has provided a few simple questions to help you decide:

Obsessive vs Harmonious Passion

Illustration by Pamela Coburn-Litvak

    How to enhance your harmonious passion

    If you find yourself closer to the OP end of the spectrum, don’t despair. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman has suggested several ways to transform that passion into the harmonious kind:

  • Learn to take real breaks. HP-ers take regular breaks because they know life is not all about work. Learn to eat lunch somewhere besides solo at your desk. Take a walk outside to get some sun and clear your head. Hit the gym. And just in case you’re worried about the loss in productivity…don’t be. A recent research study reported that the most productive employees tend to be the ones that take an average of 17 minutes off for every work hour.
  • Leave work at work. If at all possible, keep work activities where they belong: at work. Don’t bring your laptop home and try not to answer slack messages, texts, emails, or voicemails outside of office hours. This does two things. 1) It discourages the idea that you are available 24/7 to anyone who wants to contact you. This may sound like a good idea, but it’s dreadful for your long-term physical and mental health. 2) It helps you break the unhealthy habit of work obsession. If you are an OPer, kicking this habit may be one of the hardest things you ever do. But your brain and body will thank you for it.
  • Change your self-talk. Notice in the illustration above that OPers think of work in compulsory terms: “I have to,” “I should,” “I must.” HP-ers on the other hand frame their work tasks in more enjoyable and voluntary terms: “I’d love to,” “I get to,” “I want to.” Re-framing your self-talk from one to the other is an important habit to get into. You may not really be feeling the emotional change at first, and that’s okay. Follow the old but true axiom straight out behavioral change therapy: “Fake it til you make it.” Research backs up the idea that changing our explicit thought patterns can eventually change our feelings.
  • Broaden your horizons outside of work. Kaufman says that investing too much of ourselves in one particular part of life – say, our work – can be a sign of negative core self (we evaluate ourselves in a negative way). The solution to that is simple: start diversifying. Learn a new hobby; buy and read a book that has nothing to do with work. Make dinner with your family. Spend the evening with them playing games or watching movies. And play. Research says that rest and recreational activities, especially in nature, are restorative to our mental health. If you’re feeling burned out, one of the best things you can do is spend some time in nature on a regular basis.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

overwhelmed at worK? Get free resources to help.

>