Burnout Runs Deeper Than “Too Much Work”


Burnout — a state of physical and emotional exhaustion often followed by apathy and illness — is ubiquitous across industries. Physicians, businesspeople, 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 underperformance 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.

  • Physicians, especially in big systems, feel they no longer have autonomy. Some lack mastery (or at least creativity, thanks to rigid guidelines—which may work for patients but not for docs) and also belonging as medicine becomes more siloed and electronic.
  • Teachers have hardly any room to adjust curriculum, which is delivered by administrators in suits who rarely are doing the work.
  • Corporate workers struggle to feel mastery, since the more complex the knowledge economy becomes the harder it is to see clear cause-and-effect impact based on one’s actions.
  • And in a day and age when social media masquerades as real community, athlete’s spend so much time on the internet (to get sponsorship deals) that they don’t feel as connected to their actual communities. 
  • Young people (millennials) in any field, really, that have grown up in a world where their “personal brand” replaces true belonging and community. This is such an undercurrent of burnout because if unless you have the most followers on social media nothing will ever be enough. And your time will be spent there instead of doing meaningful work and making meaningful connections. Burnout. Burnout. Burnout. 

What’s interesting and what we learned in researching, reporting, and writing The Passion Paradox is that when one or more of the big three (autonomy, mastery, belonging) are missing, the intrinsic motivation and harmonious passion it supports either shifts to extrinsic motivation and obsessive passion or just plain old disgruntledness.

If autonomy, mastery, and belonging are solid, however, people can still care about external validation, metrics, and results, but they don’t become obsessed with them. If autonomy, mastery, and/or belonging are missing, people replace those key things with an obsession for external results—be it promotions, relevance, twitter followers, etc. This only lasts for so long, especially in fields (like medicine or teaching) where once you hit mid-career the options for external progress and promotion become more limited. At that point, if you don’t love the craft itself, you’re liable to burnout. So these fields have got to make sure the traits that support loving the craft are always in place throughout one’s career.

Taking a passionate person and putting them in a big system where they feel like a cog and lack real connection never, ever works. 

The key takeaways and implications:

  • Burnout isn’t just about how people work, but also about why people work and what drives them.
  • Harmonious passion is linked with high-performance, life-satisfaction, wellbeing. People with harmonious passion can work long hours without burning out.
  • Obsessive passion is the opposite. It’s linked with anxiety, depression, and burnout.
  • To create harmonious passion you need autonomy, mastery, and belonging.
  • If you lead an organization and one or more of these elements are missing, before you force your people to meditate and list their core values, fix what’s getting in the way of these things. 
  • If you yourself are feeling burnt out, evaluate whether your passion is harmonious or obsessive and whether or not you have autonomy, mastery, and belonging (true belonging, not social media). If one or more is missing, figure out how you can work toward to it. If you have a boss, talk to him or her about it.

We’ve worked in health care (Brad) and education (Steve) for a long time. It’s complicated. We know. Sometimes what is best for the overall system gets in the way of autonomy, mastery, and belonging. But the system doesn’t work without its key people (in these examples: doctors, teachers, and coaches). If burnout is a problem for you personally or for your organization, start by evaluating some of the above. If you want to learn more and really get into the details, we spent three years writing our book to open up this discussion. We encourage you to read it.

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