If you were to draw a circle with segments that represent different aspects of your life, how big would the slice for your work take up?

It doesn’t really matter what the answer is, but the question is whether you’re happy with the size of the slice? Or do you want it to be bigger? Or smaller?

report recently released by Swinburne University of Technology and Deloitte Australia has found that 1/3 workers are working more hours since the pandemic. So chances are most people want their slice of work to be smaller, and this would be consistent with the people I have asked this same question of.

We all have a yearning to feel like we’re contributing to something greater than ourselves and for many, work is where they find meaning particularly when an individual’s purpose overlaps with their organisation’s purpose. Having a sense of meaning in our lives supports us to feel good and function well, and it’s one of the pillars of the PERMA wellbeing framework.

Yet when we become too passionate about what we do, this can lead to fatigue and potentially burnout. I have seen this commonly in medics, teachers, those in the not-for-profit sector and start-ups.

Professor Robert Vallerand, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Motivational Processes and Optimal Functioning at the University of Quebec, suggests that there are two types of passion – obsessive and harmonious. Each has a different impact, either negative or positive, on our relationships, wellbeing and performance. Yet the good news is that we can restore the balance if need be.

What is passion? 

Passion can be defined as a strong inclination towards an activity that people like, are of significance, and in which they invest time and energy (Vallerand, 2008).

We all have things in our lives that we enjoy doing. They’re the activities we prioritise because they’re important to us and we also may associate them with our identity i.e., we’re a basketball player not a person that plays basketball. And they’re usually our passions such as sport, music, art or gardening as opposed to some things we just have to do like work or study. 

Over time, some of these things will be dropped and some kept, perhaps depending on if they satisfy one of our psychological needs of competence, autonomy or relatedness, or not. So passions are vital to us yet they come in different forms.

What is harmonious passion?

Harmonious passion is when we freely choose activities to do that are important to us and we like doing rather than feeling an uncontrollable urge to engage. These types of activities typically boost positive emotions, support us to feel satisfied and have a positive impact on our wellbeing. Additionally. harmonious passion has been associated with better physical health, self-esteem, creativity and concentration. This is why when we achieve harmonious passion, we tend to experience flow, which is us at peak engagement and performance. 

When we have harmonious passion, we are in control of the activity, so we can switch off, and it can co-exist alongside other important parts of our lives. This type of passion isn’t overpowering and doesn’t present a big conflict to things like spending time with family.

What is obsessive passion?

When people have a lack of control over an activity and it conflicts with other aspects of their lives, this is typically associated with obsessive passion. Often the activity has become linked to the person’s identity and sometimes feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem too.

We feel an uncontrollable urge to engage in this activity even though it conflicts with other aspects of our lives. As an example, if work becomes too obsessive, we might not take holidays, working late may become the norm and/or emails are checked over the weekend rather than spending time on hobbies or with loved ones.

Activities of this kind can lead to negative emotions, anxiety, and stress, and can have a detrimental impact on our wellbeing and performance.

When people are obsessively passionate about their job, they find it hard to stop thinking about their work, to step away and can even get upset when they’re prevented from work. This typically occurs when people are reliant on this passion for their self-worth too.

How can you get the size of the slice right?

Based on the outcomes associated with the different types of passion, we should be aiming to achieve the more harmonious type. One of the best ways to do this is have interests particularly outside of work.

Vallerand has found that by having hobbies that light you up can lower your risk of burnout. 

You also don’t want to have just one interest, which you pursue at the cost of everything else. Because if the passion ends, like a sporting career, what is left?

Additionally, you can consider the following:

  • When it comes to tasks – do you have an endless to-do list or do you mindfully prioritise what is possible each day and either delegate or delay the rest?
  • When it comes to boundaries – do you find it hard to switch off or do you schedule time for rest and recovery and other important things?
  • When it comes to identity – is your self worth defined by your job? Or not?

(The Wellbeing Lab, 2022).

What can organisations do to support harmonious passion?

More and more, we’re seeing obsessively passionate people in the workplace. Perhaps because some believe that being obsessively passionate is the best way to succeed. Particularly in organisations focused solely on the bottom line and rarely consider other aspects such as employee wellbeing.

I can’t help but think of Tesla here, which based on Elon Musk’s recent email to his employees, seems to value obsessively passionate people, who must work a minimum 40 hours per week in the office. In fact, those who don’t, will be fired.

Of course, organisations want their people to be passionate about their work. And this does lead to greater engagement, satisfaction and more productive and higher performing workers. Yet this can be achieved when passion is of the harmonious variety. Although obsessive passion can promote long-term commitment, it can also lead to persistence when it’s no longer sensible to do so and at worse, could result in burnout. So leaders should be helping their workers mindfully prioritise tasks, respect their boundaries, and support the shift from obsessive to harmonious passion.

In the words of Bon Jovi, “no matter what you do with your life, be passionate”, yet it makes sense to ensure that the passion is harmonious.