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Passion for work: pleasure or pressure?

As a society, we place huge importance on finding our passion: a Google search reveals over 28 million hits, and TV series that focus on work passion have never been more popular. But is being passionate about work always a good thing?

Two types of passion

Is being passionate about work always a good thing? To answer this question, it is important to know what passion is, exactly. According to psychologists, passion can be defined as “a strong inclination towards an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy” . Although we often think of passion as a one-dimensional construct, researchers have recently suggested that there may actually be two types of passion: harmonious and obsessive passion. Although people with harmonious and obsessive passion both describe themselves as being driven by their passion (and feel very proud of this), according to psychologists the two types are quite distinct.

Pleasurable passion: harmonious passion

People with harmonious passion feel intrinsic motivation and joy about their work. They have internalized their work into their identity of their own free will. They experience a sense of control over their work and feel that their work is in harmony with other aspects of their life. They know when it’s time to stop working – for example to focus on their family or friends. As a result, they do not experience conflict between work and other life areas. With harmonious passion, work represents a significant, but not overpowering space in someone’s identity. Harmonious passion is associated with many favorable outcomes, such as high levels of physical and psychological well-being, concentration, work satisfaction and a stable self-esteem.

Wolf in passion’s clothing: obsessive passion

In contrast, people with obsessive passion experience no control over their passion – either because the sense of excitement they derive from their work becomes uncontrollable, or because they have internalized the activity into their identity through pressure from others or themselves. Their self-steem and feelings of social acceptance depend on their passion. Their passion controls them, instead of the other way around. As a result, they cannot help thinking about and engaging with their work, even when this leads to conflicts with other life aspects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, obsessive passion is associated with various negative outcomes, such as experiencing more negative feelings (also regarding their work), having a relatively unstable, but mostly negative self-concept, and persisting when it is risky to do so.

Implications for work burnout

The differences between harmonious and obsessive passion have implications for work burnout – an increasingly serious problem, especially now that more and more young people are affected by it. In a study of French nurses, it was found that harmonious passion was associated with an increase in self-reported work satisfaction, and a decrease in conflict with other life aspects. In contrast, obsessive passion was associated with an increase in conflict. Whereas work satisfaction protected against burnout, conflict facilitated it. These effects were still present when the number of hours the nurses worked was taken into account. Whereas people with harmonious passion appear to be able to replenish their energy through other activities, people with obsessive passion are so rigidly engaged in their work that their persistence puts them at a much higher risk of burning out.

Passion for work: from pressure to pleasure

Now we know that the type of passion we have matters for our well-being, how can we make sure our passion for work is and remains healthy? Start with some self-reflection: what type of passion do you have? Does your work bring you genuine joy, or are you trying to prove things to others? Can you stop working whenever you want to? If you determine that your work controls you, instead of vice versa, there are several things you could try to do. First of all, make sure that work is not the only thing that makes up your identity – make time for other hobbies or spend time with loved ones. These other activities may contribute to a positive sense of self. This will leave less space for identifying yourself only by your work performance, and will therefore decrease the chance of you burning out. Second, it may help if you schedule breaks – real breaks that is, away from your mail or computer. You could make a conscious decision not to bring your work home – it might help to use a separate email address for home and work, for instance. But there are many more ways to make sure your passion is harmonious rather than obsessive.

To conclude, passion for work can either be a pleasure (harmonious passion) or lead to way too much pressure (obsessive passion). Hard as some people may find it, the only way to keep your passion healthy is to regularly take some time off. Why not start by getting your boss to read this blog!