How a focus on passion can push employees toward burnout

 How a focus on passion can push employees toward burnout

Employee Engagement Mental Wellness

How you measure employee engagement can have profound consequences for mental wellness.

"Meaningful work is important – no one prefers to go to a job every day that doesn’t ignite some passion within them."

A research study conducted by Great Place To Work® and Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School states that meaningful work is a significant factor in overall mental wellness. But you can have too much of a good thing! When passion turns to obsession, mental wellness suffers.

As employers, we look for people with passion and we know from Great Place To Work® research that employees are two to six times more likely to stay with their organization long-term when they say their work is more than “just a job.” Meaning and passion, however, should not be mistaken for obsession. Depending on how you are measuring engagement, this leap from passion to obsession may not be as far as you think. And it may be taking a toll on mental wellness and leading to employee burnout as well.

Passion Fatigue in Careers

We know people must detach and create healthy boundaries between work and life. We also know there are lots of pressures on people to work hard, be engaged, and stay on top of changes. There are pressures related to how artificial intelligence is going to change how people work, geopolitics is on everyone’s radar; trying to keep up with these changes is exhausting, and passionate employees may not know how to stay balanced. The employee who you can count on to always say ‘yes’, the one who is always a first adopter of new technology and tools, the one who encourages the team with their boundless energy and knowledge – these people are passionate, but do they understand the importance of finding some distance from work during non-work hours? And are you inadvertently encouraging this behaviour and undermining mental health and wellness in the workplace as a result?

In organizations everywhere, the passionate employee stands out. These are the people who end up in leadership development programs, they receive a lot of praise and recognition from their peers and managers, they bask in the accolades and they become even more passionate and engaged. They enjoy a lot of career success and they inspire others to emulate their success. A cultural story of the employee who went from sales associate to VP of Operations in five years by being available to clients 24/7, working 80+ hours a week, and poring over industry publications as a leisure activity sends a powerful message to every person in the company. The question is whether this is the message you want to send, and at what cost.

 Overworking and Mental Health

An overemphasis on passion can open employees to challenges, with management expecting workers to demonstrate their commitment with long hours, and in some cases potentially poor working conditions. It can also incentivize the performance of passion rather than its authentic presence. Working late or coming in on the weekend doesn’t guarantee your work is better, but it will almost always lead to burnout. Once people get on the passion-at-all-costs train, it is very difficult to get off and these people find themselves unable to set boundaries in the workplace. Work becomes their life and that has serious consequences for their mental health and wellness.

The solution?

Reward performance — not passion. Be aware of the difference between exhibiting a passionate vibe and being truly passionate about one’s work. The former will say things like, “I’m willing to work long hours. I’m willing not necessarily to get paid. I’m willing to make these sacrifices.” The latter will show up with on-time work, strong performance outcomes, and a willingness to go the extra mile as needed. Accomplishment and a collaborative attitude are what underscore a healthy passion for work and these are the things that you should actively reward and encourage as part of a mental wellness culture.

Cultivating Healthy Passion

What can you do to ensure your people have a healthy amount of passion for their work? The work of Robert Vallerand, who divides passion at work into two types harmonious and obsessive, provides some great insight:

  • Obsessive passion, among other characteristics, is defined as an inability to step away from work and a rigidness in how work is pursued.

  • Harmonious passion allows for more flexibility, where inspired employees can pursue areas of interest while maintaining other relationships and entertaining competing priorities.

As an employer, you might value the passion of an employee, but the moment you demand it or incentivize it, you open the door to stress and employee burnout. Instead, focus on creating high-trust workplaces where you harness workers’ harmonious passion, without pressuring them to demonstrate their passion at every turn. At the Best Workplaces for Mental Wellness harmonious passion is well supported with 91% of employees agreeing their manager shows a sincere interest in them as a person, not just an employee and 93% saying they can take time off when needed. Other strategies to help encourage a healthy passion and promote mental wellness include:

  • Lead by example – take regular breaks and vacations, encourage downtime, talk about the importance of recharging one’s battery and make time for people to share their experiences with stress, burnout, and mental wellness in the workplace.
  • Educate people on burnout prevention – provide educational resources on the signs and effects of burnout and passion fatigue, offer mental health first aid and psychological safety training as well as support groups for people to talk about their experiences.
  • Audit your recognition and promotion practices – examine the behaviours and outcomes that are being rewarded, poll your people on the pressures they experience, and continuously monitor these practices for detrimental impacts on employee wellness and mental health.

Passion is a great thing for a workplacebut it’s not the only thing. And the passion that spills over to obsession is something to be aware of and proactively manage. Mental wellness must be a priority in any great workplace culture. Spend time nurturing trust and building healthy passion. You will be rewarded with engaged employees who want to work hard and who understand that their mental wellness is key to allowing them to do so.

Nancy Fonseca
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