Naz Beheshti, Steve Jobs’ former executive assistant, explains, “As attentive as [Jobs] was to his own wellbeing, he was inattentive to the well-being of his people. He challenged and stretched people outside of their comfort zone, making them better and helping them fulfill their highest potential, but often at the expense of their health.”
However, Jobs, himself, prioritized his work-life balance, knowing it was vital to his success. “Steve was able to sustain his determined focus, clear vision, and exceptional creativity precisely because he was so disciplined about tending to his self-care. He took the time to feed his fire. He had a meditation practice, exercised regularly, nourished his body and mind, had a loving family, and maintained a deep sense of purpose while building Apple,” Beheshti, who has gone on to create Prananaz, a corporate wellness company, points out.
It’s not uncommon in the American business community to romanticize the lifestyle of overworking—often to the point of developing a real addiction to this behavior. Day after day, thousands of executives and employees in fast-growing companies work long, grueling hours to “get ahead.” They choose work over family, skip meals, and get little sleep, all in the name of productivity. While this might be the status quo, not only is it bad for a person’s health, it’s essentially pointless. As shown by research from Stanford University, productivity declines sharply after working 50 hours per week.
With this in mind, the workaholic mentality begs the question: When you look back on your life and career, will you regret spending so much time on your work, and will it even be worth it?
In this article, you’ll learn about the most common signs of workaholism, what an addiction to work is really costing you, and how to stop the compulsion to work excessively.
- In the last five years alone, over 240 studies have been published on the topic of work addiction, indicating that it has widespread interest from researchers across the globe.
- Research from Stanford University shows that people working 70 hours per week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in 55 hours.
- While over-workers have their eyes on increased productivity and success, they are negatively impacting their relationships, physical health, and mental well-being.
Signs That You’re a Workaholic
A workaholic is addicted to and unable to detach from work, with a true obsession and uncontrollable urge to invest heavily in work activities. Workaholics choose to work long, grueling hours, even when it’s negatively impacting their personal lives, relationships, and overall well-being. Beyond going the extra mile for professional success, a work addiction can change people’s value system, letting their work-life dictate their sense of self-esteem and self-worth, while typically devaluing people and hobbies outside of work.
The 15 Most Common Signs of Workaholism
- Feeling compelled to work longer hours than what’s required
- Constantly thinking about how to free up more time for work
- Skipping breaks and rarely taking time off
- Working on your off days, sometimes in secret from loved ones
- Neglecting personal hobbies and activities you enjoy
- Seeing no end in sight (never being satisfied when hitting goals)
- Struggling to keep relationships outside of work
- Missing occasions with family and friends
- Thinking about work when you’re not there
- Never saying “no” to a work-related task, even if it requires working longer hours
- Feeling run down, stressed, and irritable often
- Working to reduce guilt and anxiety
- Micromanaging tasks and having trouble with delegation
- Making endless sacrifices for your job
- Avoiding self-reflection about your workload and schedule
What’s the Difference Between Engaged Workers and Workaholics?
Researchers believe that workaholism is a true behavioral addiction that causes an overcommitment to work tasks in order to alleviate feelings of anxiety and guilt. This is not to be confused with being an engaged worker who aims for a healthy work-life balance and finds purpose in their work.
Engaged workers generally experience:
- Excitement and enthusiasm related to work
- Motivation from colleagues and connections at work
- Self-assurance from a positive work environment
- Focus on work-life balance
- Improved work performance
Workaholics generally experience:
- Irritability and tension related to work
- Competition with colleagues
- Self-worth from overworking and a compulsion to work
- Feelings of work-life conflict, but no means to resolve it
- Counterproductive work behaviors
What Causes Work Addiction?
The term “workaholic” was coined in 1971 by a psychologist named Wayne Oates, however, the word has become far more prominent in the last decade. This is due to the increased use of technology and a spike in remote working.
A 2020 survey conducted by the Canadian staffing firm Robert Half found that 55% of respondents who transitioned to work-from-home arrangements reported working over the weekends. Additionally, 34% said they work more than 8 hours per day on a regular basis.
For workaholics, there’s a personal expectation that they must be available at all hours of the day, including nights and weekends.
Sometimes, this is due to a high-pressure work environment that requires the extra hours and effort to meet deadlines and quotas, an issue called “chronic workload” in research on work addiction. A workaholic may fear losing their job, missing out on a promotion, or declining revenue if they don’t show 200% effort at all times.
Research shows that these personality traits are strongly correlated with workaholism:
- Type A personality: People with Type A personalities are typically achievement-oriented, impatient, and competitive. They may become so invested in work that they are unable to withdraw from work obligations.
- Achievement motivation: People with achievement motivation generally feel a need for achievement and find satisfaction in overcoming obstacles. They are likely to set higher standards for themselves at work and home.
- Perfectionism: Perfectionism is driven largely by internal pressures and a desire to avoid failure. It can cause a person to set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves, and may lead to all-or-nothing thinking.
- Narcissism: Narcissism is defined as extreme self-involvement and can cause people to ignore the needs of others around them. Narcissists tend to be overly self-confident, but their extreme behaviors may be an attempt to protect themselves against feelings of inadequacy.
The Cost of Workaholism
Although the term is often used loosely to describe an overachiever, workaholism is a serious issue and can impact a person’s mental and physical health. For people who only find purpose in work, life can become extremely lonely and chronic stress can wreak havoc on just about every body system. Although “time is money,” as the saying goes, what will an addiction to work cost you?
Listed below are some of the top losses you’ll face as a workaholic:
- Burnout: Burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress that isn’t being managed properly. It can come from working extended hours, losing sleep because of work, and living in a state of heightened anxiety or pressure. A systematic review of 36 studies found that burnout is a significant predictor of physical health consequences, including heart diseases, prolonged fatigue, headache, type 2 diabetes, and digestive disorders. It also increases the risk of depression and other mental health disorders.
- Isolation: Research shows that American workers are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness. In a report published by The Guardian, 40% of academics viewed isolation at work as the main factor affecting their mental health. A study published by the American Psychological Association indicates that greater social connection is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death and is equal to or exceeds other well-known life expectancy factors, such as obesity.
- Sleep deprivation: A large body of evidence suggests that excessive working hours can negatively affect sleep quality, leading to an increased risk of mental health problems and reduced productivity. A report conducted by AIA Vitality found that among 230 companies in Malaysia, employing over 17,500 adults, 53% of them said they get less than seven hours of sleep per night, and 17% reported feeling tired or fatigued at work.
- Physical and mental health issues: Researchers from University College London compiled data including over 600,000 workers and found that those who worked more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of heart disease and a 33% greater risk of stroke, compared to those who worked 35–40 hours weekly. Overworking also increases the risk of developing depression and anxiety, diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive problems, chronically increased cortisol, and substance abuse.
Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health indicates that workaholism does not appear to be associated with higher job performance. In fact, researchers believe that work addiction has few advantages for both individuals and organizations.
Are There Any Advantages to the Workaholic Mentality?
Researchers agree that a compulsion to work is problematic, and can lead to major issues related to the worker’s mental and physical health.
However, there’s evidence that in some cases the compulsion to work can:
- Lead to higher job and life satisfaction
- Improve work performance
- Cause higher levels of eustress, or “pleasant stress”
But it’s argued that these potential benefits are typical in the short term. Negative outcomes of workaholism, such as poor physical and mental health, and reduced job performance, arise in the long term.
How to Stop the Compulsion to Work
1. Admit There’s a Problem
If you’re a workaholic, chances are you’ve alienated yourself from your family and loved ones in an effort to get ahead at work. You’re feeding off task completions and meeting goals while ignoring your personal hobbies, interests, and relationships. The very first step to stopping the compulsion to work is admitting you have a problem and deciding that you want to change.
Admitting to yourself and loved ones that there’s a problem will:
- Get you the help you need to end your work addiction.
- Allow you to examine how your behavior has impacted your health.
- Enable you to consider what triggers your behaviors.
- Begin your path to better self-awareness.
2. Practice Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is the act of honestly assessing your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions, and how they impact you and the people around you. It’s a skill that you can develop and grow with practice, and will in turn make you a better communicator, worker, and leader.
Research out of the Korn Ferry Institute examined 6,977 self-assessments to identify leadership characteristics and compared the results against financial data from 486 publicly traded companies. They found that companies with a higher rate of return also employ professionals who exhibit higher levels of self-awareness.
As you resist the urge to work beyond your required hours, do this:
- Pay attention to the time you’re dedicating to work and what triggers you to think about work on your off time.
- Note when you’re having trouble disengaging from work-related tasks and use breathing exercises, journaling, or meditation to relax your mind.
- Schedule regular breaks and use your PTO for mental health days or vacations.
- Start a new hobby (or bring back an old one) that you can practice regularly.
- Plan meet-ups with friends and family in the evenings and over the weekends; talk to them about your personal goals.
3. Establish Clear Boundaries
One of the first steps to ending a work addiction is establishing clear boundaries between your work life and personal life. What work habits are preventing you from engaging in personal time with yourself and loved ones?
- First, think about your current daily schedule and begin defining how it needs to be changed in order to create more time away from work.
- Next, create a “typical day” schedule, blocking out time for a healthy morning routine, morning work hours, an afternoon break followed by additional work hours, a specific end-of-work time, and an evening routine.
- Then set notifications on your phone and computer to silence all notifications after your designated end-of-work time. If applicable, set up an automatic email response indicating that you will return to work at 9:00 a.m. (or whatever time you’ve established in your schedule).
4. Practice Doing Nothing
In the book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, author Jenny Odell wrote, “Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captures, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.”
Odell stresses that “doing nothing” allows for time away from the “unforgiving landscape of productivity,” thereby improving your personal connections, creativity, and view of the world.
You can “do nothing” by:
- Taking walks outdoors during work breaks and after work hours
- Practicing meditation and journaling
- Reading personal development books
- Connecting with loved ones in-person or over the phone
- Sitting quietly for reflection
5. Focus on Time Management
Time management is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance, organizing and prioritizing tasks, and meeting goals. Proper time management will help you to compartmentalize work-related tasks and personal activities so that you’re allotting time for both.
A 2020 study published in Nature Human Behaviour found that most people report feeling persistently “time poor,” leading to lower well-being, physical health, and productivity.
To improve your time management skills:
- Time block your schedule by designating a specific period of time for priority tasks.
- Add breaks and personal time to your daily schedule.
- Delegate tasks that don’t require your focus.
- Reduce interruptions, including phone and app notifications.
- Say “no” when a request doesn’t fit into your schedule.
6. Establish a Culture of Wellness
Research on work addiction suggests that executives must protect workers’ health in order to preserve long-term organizational vitality and productivity. If you’re a company leader, it’s your responsibility to establish a culture of wellness that allows employees to maintain boundaries between work-life and home-life, especially when they work remotely. If you’re an employee, ask your manager about establishing a wellness program for team members.
A report by Cigna indicates that 70% of employees say that wellness programs made them better able to manage their health. These types of initiatives can also boost employee morale and fulfillment in the workplace.
There are many types of wellness initiatives available to companies, including:
- Fitness and yoga classes
- Guided meditation
- Cooking and healthy eating classes
- One-on-one health or life coaching
- Group wellness challenges
- Health-related lectures and book clubs
7. Set Personal Goals
Creating specific and timely goals makes you ten times more likely to succeed and keep a positive, motivated mindset. If you’re struggling to prioritize your personal life, pinpointing goals related to your hobbies, relationships, and lifestyle will help you to continue healthy habits outside of work.
Setting personal goals will also help you to:
- Build confidence
- Initiate positive behaviors
- Improve your professional performance
- Find clarity on what matters to you most
When setting personal goals, make sure they are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) to increase your success rate. For example, if your goal is to spend more time with family, consider a goal such as this: Plan one family outing every month for the next 6 months, which may include going for a hike, visiting the park, having dinner out, or going to the movies.
8. Seek Professional Help
If strategies like self-reflection, time management, and goal-setting are not helping you to overcome your addiction to work, consider speaking to a therapist. Professional therapists or coaches can help you understand why you’ve become dependent on excessive working, how to set boundaries, and how to address underlying issues that are standing in your way of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
If you’re second-guessing whether or not you need a therapist, keep in mind that according to a report on Hubspot’s 2,580 employees, 53% of them have engaged in one-to-one care with a coach or therapist. Seeking professional help is a common and effective way to combat burnout and mental health issues related to chronic stress.
Take Your Life Back With Intention
In a blog post, Tim Ferriss writes that life should be filled with “richly textured music with the sound’s of life’s various instruments.” What he means is that the four domains of life—work, self, home, and community—should be experienced synergistically, as if each domain is a different instrument that makes up a band. Hearing one instrument alone (in this case, work) won’t be as impactful, beautiful, or satisfying.
To move away from your workaholic mentality, go back to your purpose—what are you trying to achieve with your work? If you’re working for the sake of working, it will never bring you happiness. Instead, you will be left feeling unfulfilled, no matter how successful you become.
To live your life with greater intention, start with “why,” or define your life purpose. This will allow you to set personal goals, prioritize your time, and choose work that contributes to your happiness.
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