The Secret To Managing Passion Without Burning Out

I learnt recently to my surprise that passion and burnout can be two sides of the same professional life. Passion is defined as “an intense enthusiasm for something”. It is the willingness to invest time “above and beyond” what is required, despite difficult goals and challenges. Employers love passionate employees. Workers who are inspired are after all more productive. Seasoned entrepreneurs also tout passion as one of the most important traits for entrepreneurial success.

I have always prided in being recognized as a passionate professional. But my bouts with various phases of burnout had left me puzzled. Burnout is widely recognized as the combined phases of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced performance.

As I sat down to write this article, it took just a few minutes to form the questions I wanted to address here. Passion is a fuel for energy. So I should have had high energy levels at all times in my professional life, replenished regularly by my passion for work. So why then did I experience acute exhaustion twice, and a complete burnout once in a career of 16+ years? By any account that is one too many levels of burnout. More importantly, many passionate employees continue to burnout at work. So why is there still no early warning system to recognize and prevent burnout from occurring?

Answering these questions leads to an unavoidable review of workplace management expectations and rewards. Under increased pressure for profits, American companies have been encouraging certain employee behaviors to increase productivity. These behaviors are adopted most intensely by those passionate about their work.

Starting my career in management consulting, I remember being among legions of starry eyed newbies. We were hungry to work hard and learn from some of the best professionals. We learnt quickly from examples set by our seniors to accept and even glamorize our 100-hour work weeks. It became a badge of honor among family and friends to “be busy”. To not have time for anything or anyone other than work. Hyper responsiveness to emails sent at unearthly times would mean our superiors would have fondly noted us as a “hard worker”. As one to be kept in mind for other promising career opportunities. For those of us naturally driven, this led to working and checking emails at all waking moments.

Most companies have built similar cultures over the past 25 years. The willingness to work on challenging schedules and goals is an encouraged path to coveted career opportunities. The holy grail of career opportunities are offered as a “carrot” along the way. Be it a partnership in professional services firms, senior executive positions in corporations or larger than life size bonuses.

Employees who want more balance between work and life quit demanding workplaces after a point. Those more in love with their jobs keep up the grueling schedules. For individuals more vulnerable to burnout, it then becomes just a matter of time.

Burnout does not happen overnight. So why is it so difficult to prevent?

When my last burnout hit, it was complete. Across all phases. The financial crisis had just unraveled. I was already exhausted from a brutal year of long and bi-coastal projects. On the heels of that, I was asked to take on an impossible work load for the upcoming year. But I persisted through insane hours, in a very tough business environment. A recent research study by UC Berkeley says “People experiencing burnout are not simply tired, they are discouraged and alienated.” On hindsight my burnout was handled poorly. Neither management nor human resources were equipped to track the beginnings or the symptoms of a burnout. I was not either.

In the startup world, burnout can hit faster, and harder. These self driven environments are in many ways tougher than corporate environments. They have fewer resources, more constraints. The survival of such fledgling companies depends upon attracting passionate employees, self driven and productive. The employee’s reward initially is their passion for the idea/purpose of the startup, or their faith in the founder/s. But working against odds over a long period of time, and under stressed founders can, and often does, turn employee passion into burnout.

Self awareness is the first step to managing one’s actions. So I have often wondered if loving the long work hours, intense travel, stress from uncharted work meant there was something I was doing wrong. After all, I didn’t just follow the demanding work behaviors nurtured cumulatively by my professional environments. I had absorbed them into my persona. There is no getting around it. Just like other passionate workers, I am an intense “workaholic”.

Robert J. Vallerand’s study Dualistic Model of Passion describes passion having two main flavors: harmonious and obsessive. Obsessive passion is driven by a need to prove to others. And harmonious passion is from a genuine satisfaction in one’s work.

Older and hopefully wiser, I understand now that my compulsive need to work all the time comes from an ‘obsessive passion’ for work. Scott Barry Kaufman PhD, Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania explains it further in “Why Passion could ruin your work”. He says “those with obsessive passion rigidly persist even when it’s no longer sensible to so do. This may explain why so many child prodigies fizzle out later in life — regardless of their talent”. I am no child prodigy. But it makes sense that my choices towards blind persistence, and an obsessive focus on work would inevitably lead to a burn out, or three. I understand the need to transition to a harmonious passion for work to sustain my energy levels.

Balancing employee passion vs burnout needs both employer and employee to be jointly accountable. According to a new report* 53% of American employees have reported feeling burned out. Below are some suggestions to help get the discussion started on reaching productivity goals with maximum employee wellness.

Employers

  1. Start measuring productivity with employee energy levels, rather than with employee engagement. (Ref: NY Times article)
  2. Assess employee’s energy profile (passion type, energy needs and vulnerability to burnout). Drive accountability to check their own energy levels, and seek help when needed through open managerial channels.
  3. Train each manager/leader: to understand their team’s energy profiles, delegate effectively and plan for temporary succession.
  4. Monitor employee energy levels regularly. Increased frequency for those with ‘intense’ profiles, and for those under heavy workloads. Raise visibility of energy levels to managers/leaders for prompt action.
  5. “Even the best athletes on the best teams need time to rest and recover”. Proactively offer work opportunities + wellness packages that fit energy refreshment needs of the employee.

Individuals

  1. Improve self awareness of your drive and motivators. Mr Vallerand’s study and Mr Kafman’s article quoted above are great reads to get started.
  2. If you have an ‘obsessive passion’ for work, take small steps to move to the ‘harmonious’ kind. Like disengaging more often and enjoying other life interests.
  3. Identify work activities that need a sprint mode i.e. ‘always on’ and urgent attention. And those that can use a marathon mode i.e. a paced, measured approach.

When self motivated employees burn out it is a huge loss for all concerned. For the individuals it amounts to lost time, opportunities and health. For employers, it is a loss of productivity and sometimes of a trained, experienced hire. It seems obvious. But one of the best investments an employer can make is to help their driven, passionate employees stay refreshed and satisfied to get their maximum productivity.

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