“Burnout” Isn’t Just Having Too Much Work

Author: Brad Stulberg Source: Passion Paradox

Burnout — a state of physical and emotional exhaustion often followed by apathy and illness — is ubiquitous across industries. Physicians, business people, artists, teachers, and athletes all have high rates of burnout. As a matter of fact, most studies show that between 40 and 50 percent of people are experiencing burnout at any given time. This is cause for great concern. Research shows that burnout and under performance go hand-in-hand. Physical (e.g., speed, strength), cognitive (e.g., alertness, focus, creativity), and emotional (e.g., patience, resilience) ability all decline. And this is to say nothing of individual human suffering and lost potential that accompanies burnout.

The most commonly discussed way to reduce burnout is to change how we work. We need to take more breaks, disconnect from our digital devices, get more sleep, and exercise. All of this can be true, no doubt. At a bare minimum, if you aren’t respecting the cycle of stress + rest = growth, you probably won’t last long, at least not too long. But there’s another driver of burnout that isn’t discussed nearly as often and is every bit, if not more, important. It’s one of the main findings we uncovered in The Passion Paradox: the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion. This is much more about why we work.

Harmonious passion is when an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity because they love how the activity itself makes them feel. Obsessive passion is when an individual gets hooked on something because of external rewards; read: fame, fortune, a promotion, or in this day and age, social media followers. Obsessive passion is firmly linked with burnout.

When we are obsessively passionate, we are constantly striving for things that are outside of our control. Other’s opinion of our work, not our work itself, fulfills and satisfies us. We become hooked on hitting the highest metric, getting the promotion, or being seen as relevant in the organization or in the department we work. But leaving our professional — and perhaps even personal — self-worth to others in this way is a recipe for disaster, a recipe that often results in burnout. When it’s not firmly grounded in a strong foundation, striving leads to craving, and craving leads to suffering. 

The answer isn’t eliminating passion. It’s cultivating harmonious passion in our organizations (and ourselves).

This runs counter to a “results first” and “pay for performance” and “selfie” culture. Yet when people are encouraged to engage in an activity for the love of the activity itself, they rarely, if ever, burnout — even when they log long hours and neglect other elements of their lives (for a period of time, anyways). They are happy to spend their hours “working” because they love their work and they have removed themselves from the emotional roller coaster of external validation.

This sounds easy, but it’s not. Here’s why.

Harmonious passion requires three main things. This has been studied for over 45 years and the evidence is highly replicable across diverse fields of practice:

1) Autonomy: the ability to have a significant control over one’s work.

2) Mastery: the ability to see improvement and progression in one’s craft.

3) Belonging or relatedness: a feeling of connection and community.

If you think about the fields where burnout is especially prevalent (e.g., medicine, teaching, corporate work, and sport) you see that at least one, if not more, of these critical attributes is missing.

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