The Dark Side of Passion at Work

It's not my work, it's my passion at work

Being passionate about one’s work is widely recognized as one of the most desirable aspects of employment. To be rewarded, not by external means such as money or promotions, but rather by appeal to the intrinsic value of meaningful work is the ultimate state of work motivation. On Maslow’s pyramid this equates to the pinnacle of motivation known as “self-actualization.” Everything is beautiful when one enjoys complete passion at work. Right?

Not necessarily, according to recent studies.

There is a dark side to the experience of being highly passionate about one’s work. Maybe you’ve experienced it – or exploited it.

The phenomenon is called “legitimization of passion exploitation” and it falls under the broad umbrella of cognitive dissonance, or rationalization. It occurs when some unsavory or demeaning task is handed to an employee because they are so passionate about their work that they won’t be bothered. Examples include being asked (forced) to work extra hours without pay, or to carry out undesirable tasks that have no legitimate relationship to the worker’s job. In the boss’ mind these are trivial matters because the passionate worker is so motivated, they would do just about anything simply out of their “love” for their work.

From a phenomenological standpoint, it can be readily apparent to a passionate employee when they are being “overused,” but it’s unknown to the boss who imposes such demands. As mentioned, cognitive dissonance results in the boss thinking to themselves, “They love their work so much, they will be glad to work a few extra hours” or “they’ll appreciate coming to another team dinner this evening,” etc.

So, while passionate work may be arguably the greatest reward for people at work, it also can have a downside.

How do we handle this?

The most direct means is to make the boss aware that their explicit, or implicit demands that aren’t fair or aren’t part of the worker’s job are, in fact abusive, if not as psychologically harmful as some of the more obviously exploitative behaviors (e.g., sexual harassment, exposure to extremely dangerous conditions, bullying, etc.). This could be accomplished as simply as by educating the boss about the potential for legitimization of passion exploitation as a form of abuse of power but may require more intensive intervention if the “bias” (it’s not technically a psychological bias) is deeply ingrained in their behavior or world view.

Alternatively, the worker could – or need -- be the point of intervention. In this case the employee who is being exploited for their passion may first have to overcome their own possible biases that also can serve to justify the exceptional requests. Passionate employees oftentimes volunteer for various “extraordinary” tasks because they too justify the behavior in the name of their own passion. But this isn’t always the case.

Once one notices that they are being exploited by a presumably caring, but blinded boss, they need to “unblind” the boss in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good. This can be difficult since the boss is not consciously aware of their exploitative behavior and there may even be a longstanding precedent in which the exploited employee willingly – cheerfully – submits to the excessive demands. Ideally, a third party, such as a coach or HR, could broach the topic between employee and boss. But not everyone, mostly no one, has the benefit of a trained third party so ready to intervene.

For the passionate employee, the greatest hurdle is to get over the impression that anything is justified in the line of their ‘beloved’ work. Sometimes even great jobs ask too much of employees. And this is where the intervention begins; noticing that one is being exploited and that it isn’t right. It’s far more difficult for the employee to remedy the situation than the boss or via a third party, but it isn’t impossible.

In cases where a third party is unavailable or inappropriate (some boss’ would rather be addressed directly by the employee than to be made aware by a coach or HR) the employee should first remember that they are likely perceived in a positive light by their boss. In addition, this type of exploitation isn’t deliberately demeaning or pejorative. The employee just needs to find the right way to bring up the issue without causing undue harm, i.e., embarrassment by accusation. This will require tact and diplomacy on the part of the employee.

The first issue is timing: when should the employee bring up the perception that they are being ‘overused’? Generally, the best time to bring up sensitive issues is when emotions are balanced. It’s not wise to mention that you’re being overworked when your boss is under a lot of pressure. Instead, the employee should wait for a time when both they and their boss are “psychologically removed” from the behavior or situation to minimize reflexive, defensive reactions. Both the employee and boss should be in a neutral frame of mind where it comes to the given exploitative situation. A particularly good time would be when the boss asks for feedback. This doesn’t mean they won’t be upset by the accusation, but they’re presumably prepared for some corrective encouragement.

If you, the exploited one, must bring the issue up, be sure to do so in a private meeting with your boss. Face to face is best, then via voice/teleconference if face to face isn’t practical. The least favorable means are via the written word. Email or notes (or even worse, tweets) are much less personal or intimate and miss the sensitivity of being more “present.” Traditional advice on giving negative feedback applies in this situation. Try starting with what you appreciate most about your boss or your job and then delicately introducing the one thing that would make your boss or your job even better. When positioned as an extension of something positive, negative feedback is more palatable.

There are other means of guarding against or remedying exploitation of passion, but the main point is that it happens and that it isn’t intended to be exploitative. While not on level ground with child labor or blatant abuse of power, passionate employees can be victims of the very work for which they are so passionate.

Do you know of anyone who is experiencing passion exploitation at work? You probably do and it isn’t “just okay.” Step in or step up to this subtle, but real form of abuse and right a wrong that many don’t see.

Psychological burnout is a lonely experience with lots of company. Here are 7 ways to help others out while avoiding it yourself

psychological burnout is a silent crisis that needs an alarm

Psychological burnout in the workplace is a painful, silent crisis receiving inadequate attention from both organizations and individuals. The social stigma of appearing weak prevents victims from speaking up and the need to be seen as virtuous in light of such a debilitating condition keeps organizations (i.e., leaders in control) from accepting blame, much less do anything about it. Despite, and as result of this comorbid “coverup,” everyone both knows what psychological burnout is, and knows a victim of it. This is a very personal affliction. What’s worse? Recovery from psychological burnout is extremely difficult – even with lots of help.

Anecdotal evidence of the increasing problem of burnout at work can be found in my typical day. Lately I’ve been taking an increasing number of calls from self-claimed victims (or near it). And these calls come from individuals both at, and out of, work. It’s clear to me that this is not a simple matter of the binary reality of having or not having work. Those who call “with work" wrestle with the question of whether or not they should quit, and those “without” work struggle with whether or not to finally give up the search for meaningful work. This is evidence of a third brutal truth beyond hushed victims and organizations in denial. No two people experience the stressors that lead to full blown burnout the same way. What one calls stressful to the point of ruin, another claims to be exhilarating. What all calls have in common is a deep and painful sense of lost relevance -- and loneliness.

Naturally, prevention is the best course of action. But for the reasons already mentioned, few (and increasingly fewer) organizations are ready or able to take action before it’s too late. The worse things get, the less willing and able organizations are to reckon with the causes of psychological burnout. The problem is more ominous than the mere absence of some innocuous organization stressors such as employee engagement or basic satisfaction with working conditions. Psychological burnout is squarely on the dark side of organizational behavior.

But the survival instinct is strong, and people experiencing stress will turn to independent means when outside help isn’t available. Too frequently, however, independent action exacerbates the problem causing more stress despite seeming innocent enough. Stress is like quicksand, you don't know how deep it is, it's very difficult to escape, and the struggle to do so can dig you in deeper. Some of these behaviors are actually helpful in the right circumstances but things change under stress. For example, taking time off is an obvious and popular means of reducing stress. The paradox here is that work and the stressors at work don't take a vacation, in fact they actually accumulate over the time when one is experiencing chronic stress. But some "go to" behaviors are clearly dysfunctional in the case of burnout and may create an even worse, vicious cycle, e.g., abusing alcohol.

Here I provide a list of simple behaviors one can take to reduce stress and ward off burnout that a) don’t depend on someone or something else to help and b) pose {little} risk of making things worse. As such, they avoid the complications apparent for stress in the workplace (which may be the same place as home). {Note: Special and significant caution is advised for items 6 and 7 for reasons I will address to follow.}

  1. Smile - Smiling makes people feel happy – even when nobody sees them. In addition, smiling is associated with the psychological trait of “agreeableness” which is associated with success at work. Most beneficial, smiling and its consequences is contagious.
  2. Move around - Movement improves cognitive functioning and re-focuses attention so as to avoid stress.
  3. Clean up – When someone declutters their workspace they may also “declutter their head” by putting away distractions that can cause stress. Cleaning up also demonstrates “conscientiousness,” another trait that, like agreeableness, is associated with high performance, for good reason. Organizing behavior, a component of conscientiousness, serves as a form of non-verbal communication that allows others to know what or where something is when “the organizer” isn’t available (or is taking a vacation).
  4. Exercise – The link between physical fitness and mental fitness is clear and strong, exercise improves self-image and releases high amounts of endorphins. In fact, being physically active improves health as much or more than dieting or even quitting smoking (which is still very harmful).
  5. Meditate – Studies consistently reveal the power of meditation to improve psychological health. Mindfulness is one form of meditation with especially impressive positive results. When combined with physical activity (i.e., exercise) the benefits multiply.
  6. Be with others – People are social animals with a fundamental need to interact. Even passive interaction helps to make people feel better. By interacting with others, individuals build their social network which is probably the number one predictor of well-being. (Caveat – it is not helpful to be around others who similarly are experiencing stress or burnout. This can create exaggerated anxiety that results in one or both becoming even more stressed and at risk of burnout.)
  7. Do someone a favor – People who help others can receive more benefit than the person they’re helping. A simple favor makes the individual useful and builds social relationships. (Again, it’s vitally important that the favor not pertain directly to psychological stress or stressors.)

As the potential for these suggested remedies to allay burnout increases, so does the risk (in terms of likelihood and severity) of unfavorable results. I have listed them by increasing order of potential benefit AND risk. Incremental risk for items 1 through 5 is relatively constant, but the risk spikes for items 6 and 7. Due to the social nature of these two items caution is advised, the risks can outweigh the benefits. A mistake here can create bigger problems not just for one, but for two or more people. Only when properly managed and kept within the scope as defined here can the benefits of behaviors #6 and #7 be realized with minimum negative fallout. Should there be any doubt, these are not advised. Dumping stress on someone else is a burden to even willing receivers who aren't trained as a counselor.

Psychological burnout and the stressors that cause it is a painful and pervasive problem that increasingly is not receiving adequate attention. That said, individuals don’t have to simply “get over it” without any help. The behaviors described here have scientific support for their ability to make a difference in an individual’s experience and management of moderate levels of stress without outside intervention. In cases that approach true burnout more substantial intervention is necessary. Though burnout may be silent, help is desperately wanted.