Catching the “aviation bug” is dangerous. Especially once you begin working in the field for yourself - there is no turning back. The days are long, but who cares? You are living the dream. The saying goes, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Studies show that being passionate about your work has many benefits, including reduced stress, increased productivity, and stronger morale toward your career goals.
I’m not here to tell you to stop being passionate about your work. But, it would be best to remain aware of the side effects of being zealous. If you recall, I spoke previously about burnout and how specific industries are more prone than others. This passion might get us through the most challenging days. However, it does not precisely help address the underlying burnout that waits to rear its ugly head.
The Sciency Part
According to a recent article by Harvard Business Review, more than 700 full-time U.S.-based employees were surveyed about their passion for their work. As thought, on days when they felt exceptionally more passionate, their level of burnout was relatively low. However, these same employees reported the opposite the following days and felt more burned out than usual. What gives?
Life is all about balance. Think about your last intense day at the gym, where you exerted more intensity than usual. On days when we feel particularly passionate, we similarly feel energized and can exert more effort into our work. Equivalently, your body will require added rest to restore things back to normal. According to the article,
"This is because, on days when employees experienced higher levels of passion, they also felt more energized. This energy boost made their work seem easier, and so they ended up investing more time and energy into it — but this also caused employees to overlook their own needs, fail to prioritize rest and recovery, and ruminate about work rather than mentally switching off from their jobs when the workday was over. "
Increased productivity may also result from our survival instinct from a need to elevate our work as a reaction to an adverse change in the status quo. For most of us, every day is different, which can be both good and bad. Our fight-or-flight response will kick in when we face a complex challenge. Because we are good people passionate about our work, we will likely rise to the occasion.
In this case, the body may experience an “amygdala hijack” (feel free to Google what this is, but I plan on discussing this more in the future) where the fight response takes over, leaving us hyper-focused on the task at hand. The longer this hijack lasts, the more emotionally drained we feel once it has passed. Think of the last time you dealt with irregular operations; how did you feel the following day? Odds are you were pretty wiped.
What We Can Do
There is nothing wrong with loving what you do. Sometimes, just being peripherally aware of a possibility is enough to work as a preventative measure. On days when work comes easy, and I find myself moving more than 100%, I am sure to take a breather to stretch that concentrated effort out over a more sustainable period. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The airport or airline will be there tomorrow.
Outside of work, we can refocus the energy towards our outlets. There is a reason it is called work/life balance. It may take a little practice, but there is nothing wrong with harnessing that energy to instead push yourself that extra mile on the treadmill or finish that book you have been working on. If you cannot think of an outlet to invest energy outside of work, that is a problem. It is time to pull out the drawing board and figure out where to emotionally invest in a heartful activity after you punch off the clock for the day.
There are times when we cannot say no to working after hours, but I suggest clearly defining internally where that line lies. This is extremely important as there are manipulative bosses who exist to exploit the admirable personality traits in others - that is, our willingness to help others. Learning to say “no” is one of the most essential parts of developing as a professional and a leader. By creating your barriers, you will not let the toxic aspects of this industry protrude into your personal lives. If you are concerned about this negatively affecting your prospects for advancing within the company, I have a news flash - you are with the wrong organization.
If you are a manager wondering what you can best do to support your employees, you have come to the right place. Rather than exacerbate unsustainable passion and watch employees burn themselves out, be aware of the signs of exhaustion and help your people understand how to harness that passion more sustainably. Start by ensuring they are handed a manageable workload and have the resources to perform their work (not just pens and paper - I'm talking about items like adequate staffing and sound support systems). Further, reminding employees of the bigger picture will center those who have gone a step too far - trust me, they will thank you later.
On a more internal-control level, you may or may not understand when you reach your capacity, as some are more attuned than others. Exploring mindfulness (a.k.a. meditation) will help improve our introspection. The best part is there is no cookie-cutter way to meditate - everyone has their best method. I am no Gandhi, but I have been meditating more this year. Having ADHD, I find my mind always moves in one direction or another. So, I stop and clear my mind, just leaving it empty. It works like a charm! Do you want to meditate but do not know where to start? I suggest looking into apps like Headspace and Calm, which are great tools for improving mindfulness.
Aviation always preaches situational awareness. Well, we must remain aware of our situations to guarantee that when the day comes and we reach the finish line, we feel as passionate as we did on day one. Just take a moment now for introspection. Have you ever felt your passion took you a step too far? How did your support systems withstand the effects of burnout? How did you best recover? What did you do that you find helped? Being proactive with our emotional sustainability will go a long way in making sure we continue to do what we love.