Should ‘passion’ really be a prerequisite for an effective employee? There’s a dark side to passionate workers that employers and HR need to be aware of.
Erin Cech was in a cafe in Cape Town and when she got her coffee, the cup read: ‘Passionately made by [barista’s name]’.
“They couldn’t just offer customer service by making a good latte. They had to perform it in such a way that demonstrated their love and passion for coffee,” says Cech, who is a sociologist, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and author of The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfilment at Work Fosters Inequality.
“[There was] a different level of expectation around the emotional labour of the work.”
While passionate workers are seemingly a positive addition to any workplace, they can also pose significant risks from a wellbeing perspective, especially when passion-fuelled motivation is perpetuated by employers. Part of this risk comes down to the fact that our work is often so closely aligned with our sense of identity.
“There’s a sense that we have to have a self-reflexive project in our lives – that our lives are a narrative we’re crafting, telling the story of who we are, as though it was the narrative arc of a movie. As part of that, people often draw on what they do for a job,” says Cech.
“As we’ve moved from a religiously oriented society, where community-based organisations tied people to a sense of community-based self, we’re now in a post-industrial, capitalist society. We don’t have those same traditional anchors for who we’re supposed to be.”
This is why so many of us go in search of a professional calling; it’s linked with our desire to belong to something larger than ourselves.
“This is clearly reflected in the fact that when we ask small children, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, the answer is a job,” says Cech. “They’re not saying, ‘I want to be a good community member,’ or ‘I want to be kind.’ There’s this deep centrality of what we’re doing in paid employment for our sense of identity.”
Read HRM’s article on managing passion fatigue in employees.
Over-reliance on passionate workers
Passion comes out of three interrelated things, says Cech:
- The intellectual connection to the work – finding it fascinating or interesting.
- Affective emotional attachment – finding love, joy or excitement from the work.
- A sense of a biographical fit or match with one’s unique sense of personhood. “For example, they might say, ‘I grew up playing with Lego and that led me to be passionate about being an engineer.'”
She also notes that the rise of the gig economy is perpetuating these behaviours, as you can “hustle on the side” until you can make that hustle your full-time gig.
“In the last 10 or 15 years, that has been amplified. In the US specifically, but [also] in the broader post-industrial labour market, [there’s a sense of] complacency with the gig economy – as if those are employment circumstances that people are making a choice to be part of because they’re passionate about it.
“In the broader labour market, there is a reliance on people following their passion… that allows for a cloaking of the deeply troubling nature of the instability and precarity that a lot of workers are increasingly facing.”
Privilege and passion
Although there’s a cultural assumption that you can do anything you’re passionate about as long as you work hard, that’s not a reality for most people. An interesting part of Cech’s research looks into how passion and privilege are interconnected.
“In order to translate something people are passionate about into decently paying, stable employment, [people] usually need to have two things. One is safety nets; these are sort of economic safety nets, maybe parents who can help them pay the bills when they take an unpaid internship.
“Then there are springboards. These are connections or knowledge that somebody has in an industry that they’re passionate about. The people most likely to have those safety nets and springboards are people who are from socioeconomically privileged backgrounds.”
“If work is such a big centrepiece of your sense of identity, there can be a deep, existential risk [for people] given the precarity of the labour market. You may lose that job and, with that, a core part of your sense of self.” – Dr Erin Cech, Associate Professor, University of Michigan
Passionately burnt out
When ‘passion’ is woven into expectations for how we work, a culture may be ripe for burnout.
“Especially if one feels they have to ‘perform’ passion for their job. It’s incredibly exhausting and can feel constraining. There’s a controlling sense over the way you’re doing your work,” says Cech.
“This feeds into a culture of overwork, encouraging white-collar workers to tolerate precarious employment and sacrifice time, money and leisure for work they’re passionate about.”
Cech’s research found two in three people with a university degree rate passion-fuelled work as more important than pay and stability.
This is often more beneficial to employers than workers, she says, as some leaders exploit a passionate employee’s efforts and ignore their obligations to create boundaries around how long and often people are working.
“Employers covet, but won’t [always] compensate, passion among job applicants. There’s this sense that you can get more work out of people who are passionate.”
Her research has also found that being perceived ‘passionate’ is synonymous with being perceived to be a hard worker.
“That’s a step removed from an exploitative use of passion, but it’s still the same idea. However, when it can be particularly pernicious is when we link passion with competence. There is a general sentiment that people who are passionate about work are better at it.”
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Diversify your meaning-making portfolio
Devotion to work isn’t always extrinsically driven. An internal propensity to be overly passionate about work can be equally problematic, she says.
“I’m not saying it’s bad to love the work you do, but if work is such a big centrepiece of your sense of identity, there can be a deep, existential risk [for people] given the precarity of the labour market. You may lose that job and, with that, a core part of your sense of self.”
One antidote to this is to diversify your ‘meaning-making portfolio’, she says. That means investing time and energy into finding a sense of self outside of paid employment.
“You need to be completely militant about making time and space [away from] work because the labour force wasn’t designed to support us in our path to self-fulfilment. It’s designed to support the owners and stakeholders of the places we work for. To entrust the labour force with such an important part of who we are is really risky.”
HR and employers can help employees to “shrink the footprint of work in our life” through the lens of time, energy and attention, says Cech.
“From a time perspective, ask questions like, ‘How many hours a week are you spending on work?’ and ‘Are you working into the evenings?’ The attention perspective is asking, ‘Are you focused on friend and family time, or are you always distracted by [work] emails?’
Read HRM’s article on tackling the modern ‘time famine’.
“And energy is about, ‘To what extent are you expending all the energy you have on work-related things and not saving time for things outside of work?’
“The more space we allow to have a sense of self outside of work, the more we can be inoculated against the potential devastation from losing a job, or even just having a day or week that doesn’t go well.”
“There’s all kinds of research that says that when people have time for rest and relaxation, they’re more productive and they’re more creative. So from a bottom line perspective, that isn’t necessarily a bad investment.”
A portion of this article first featured in the October 2023 edition of HRM Magazine. This article was passionately written by Kate Neilson.