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Is Your Job Passion the Right Kind? Or a Recipe for Burnout?

Harmonious vs obsessive passion, explained.
Feb 18, 2022
Photo/s: Shutterstock

You might wish you were more passionate about your job. Or that you had the kind of job you could at least imagine being passionate about. Something that made you jump out of bed in the morning, excited about a new day filled with fist pumps and joy.

But psychologists differentiate between two types of work-related passion – and they may not both appeal, even if you’re more than a little fed up with your current role.

“Harmonious” work passion refers to situations in which a person not only enjoys their job, but also has control over their relationship with it. People with harmonious work passion have often chosen their career because it is something which interests them, and they gain great pleasure from how they earn a living. Crucially, the work does not profoundly interfere with other important elements of their life.

But a person with “obsessive” work passion has little control over their relationship with their job. They consider their occupation, and related factors such as promotions and pay rises, to be central to their lives.

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The obsessively passionate rarely disengage completely from their jobs, and even though they might be very successful at what they do, this often comes without a sense of satisfaction. Such an approach can take over lives, and lead to burnout, when you are physically and emotionally exhausted, and feel helpless and trapped.


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So how do you make sure you end up filled with the right kind of passion? If you have obsessive work passion, is it you or the job? Our research suggests it’s probably both.

To study the relationship between personality traits, work, and the type of passion people develop, we analysed data from a psychology project which collected data and test results from over 800 participants.

We measured some of their personality traits, referred to in psychology as the “big five”: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

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We also assessed their attitudes to work, using the degree with which they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements such as “My work is in harmony with other activities in my life”, or “I have difficulties controlling my urge to work”.

Finally, we categorized their jobs, using a system which scores various types of work according to six descriptions: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. (You can use this online test to get an idea of what kind of work you might be looking for.)

Our findings suggest that personality traits (especially neuroticism) interact with the work environment in a complex way, and trigger different types of passion. In particular, people prone to neuroticism (mood swings, anxiety and irritability) are much more likely to develop obsessive work passion if they work in a job in the “enterprising” category. In general, these are careers which rely heavily on the power of persuasion and place a great deal of emphasis on reputation, power and status.

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For example, a person who agrees with statements such as “I get upset easily” or “I worry about different things at the same time” is much more vulnerable to burnout if they work as a lawyer, a fundraiser, or a broker. But that same person is less likely to become obsessed with their job if they work as a dentist, engineer, nurse, surgeon or social worker.

It’s important then, to work out what kind of passion you have for your job. Do you feel in control, do you enjoy your successes? If the answer is no, or there are other hints that your work passion is of the obsessive kind, then you might want to consider a change in direction to avoid being at risk of burnout.

In the example above, that might mean trying to find a role which has less of an enterprising element; something more artistic or social, perhaps. For while we might not be able to change our personalities, a job change might lead to a greater sense of satisfaction and control – and potentially more time to find our passion in the world outside of work.

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The author, , is an Associate Professor, School of Sociology; Geary Fellow, Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin.

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