It used to be that being seen as a workaholic was a badge of honor. Luckily, we now know just how severe the consequences are from working long hours. Everyone loves a hard worker, but too much overwork has been linked to everything from increased stress and poor sleep to an inability to communicate, collaborate and think creatively.
Unfortunately, being a workaholic isn’t just about working long hours. According to new research, you can still face all the negative mental and physical consequences of workaholism and be working fewer hours than the majority of people around you.
If shorter hours aren’t a guaranteed way to save yourself from workplace stress, what is?
To answer that, we need to dive deeper into exactly what it means to be a workaholic, why being one is so dangerous, and how to tell if you’ve crossed the line from working hard to being obsessed.
What is a workaholic? And how is it different from someone who simply works long hours?
The term “Workaholic” was first coined by psychologist Wayne E. Oates back in 1968 for someone with “an uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” Oates saw some people’s relationship to work as an addiction akin to alcoholism or substance abuse.
Yet despite the word workaholic being a part of our culture for more than 50 years, there’s still no single accepted medical definition for what a workaholic is.
Psychologist Bryan Robinson called work addiction “the best-dressed mental health problem” of them all. And in fact, even the signs of workaholism originally defined by Oates sound like someone answering an interview question about their “worst qualities.” Things like:
- An inner compulsive drive to work hard
- Thinking about work constantly
- Feeling guilty and restless when they are not working
Yes, all of these actions could signify someone who has become obsessed with their career. But they could also just as easily be signs of a particularly busy or stressful moment.
Maybe there’s a large presentation due or a deadline for work. Isn’t it perfectly acceptable to be driven to work hard, be thinking about your responsibilities, and feeling guilty when you’re taking time off?
Isn’t that just being a good employee?
Workaholics aren’t just more passionate about their jobs
So what does differentiate the workaholic from a passionate, hard-working employee then? How do you know if you’re just facing a stressful moment at work or if you’ve slipped into full-blown workaholism and need help?
The common excuse for workaholics is that they’re passionate. Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life, right? Unfortunately, this favorite saying of counselors and parents around the globe doesn’t hold up to the realities of workaholism.
Many workaholics are aware of their bad work habits but feel there isn’t any other choice. Much like we wrote in our Guide to Overcoming Perfectionism, workaholics have had their habits re-enforced by sometimes of years of positive results.
They work hard, obsess over their jobs, and get promotions or raises or recognition. But eventually, they’re either unable to keep up with their own expectations, or the rewards dry up.
That’s where the true issue with being a workaholic comes into play. As workaholic expert Dr. Barbara Killinger writes, work has become such an integral part of our identity that when we tip over to workaholism we have nothing left to give to our friends, loved ones, personal goals, and hobbies.
“These bright, energetic, and competitive people rarely relax, and seemingly need little sleep. They become compulsively caught up in the seductive, persona-enhancing perks that the workaholic lifestyle offers.
“Unfortunately… these same people lose the insight and wisdom necessary to be aware of their own decreasing capabilities.”
Workaholics can’t disconnect from the workday
Probably the most profound sign of being a workaholic is not being able to disconnect from the workday. For workaholics, their jobs, tasks, responsibilities, and workday stresses take up the majority of their mental space.
As professors Like ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P. Rothbard write in Harvard Business Review:
“Unlike people who merely work long hours, workaholics struggle to psychologically detach from work. And we know that ongoing rumination often goes together with stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems, and it impedes recovery from work. Stress levels in workaholics are therefore often chronic, which leads to ongoing wear and tear on the body.”
In one study, those people who couldn’t disconnect from work reported a higher need for recovery, more sleep problems, more cynicism, more emotional exhaustion, and more depressive feelings, regardless of how many hours they were working.
Stress is pretty much inevitable in most jobs. However, while most people only deal with acute stress (around deadlines or specific moments) workaholics feel it all the time. If you deal with elevated stress for long enough, you can even reset your body’s “set points”—your baseline level of stress.
Even worse, this stress isn’t alleviated by working shorter hours. In a study of 763 employees at a Dutch financial consulting company, researchers found that:
“Employees who worked long hours (typically more than 40 hours a week), but who did not obsess about work… reported fewer health complaints than employees who demonstrated workaholism.”
Want to learn more? Check out our full guide on How to Disconnect from Work.
Workaholics find less joy in their careers and are less engaged
You might think that to be a workaholic, you’d have to truly love what you do. But ironically, the opposite is more likely to be true. The fact is that workaholics feel compelled to work. In other words, they feel they should be working, even if they don’t want to.
As Dr. Malissa Clark writes in Fast Company:
“People who have high work engagement–a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind–are probably not workaholics.
“Engaged workers are driven to work because they find it intrinsically pleasurable–they truly enjoy it–while workaholics are driven to work because they feel an inner compulsion to do so.”
Or, as psychotherapist Robinson puts it:
“A workaholic is someone who’s on the ski slopes dreaming about being back at work. A healthy worker is at work, dreaming about being on the ski slopes.”
However, if you do have workaholic tendencies, being engaged with your work can actually be good for you.
In one study, engaged workaholics reported having more support from co-workers and family while also scoring higher on communication and time management skills and reporting much higher intrinsic motivations for work.
How to tell if you’re a workaholic (and ask for help)
We all go through periods where we have to work for long hours or are more stressed at work. So how do you know if your workaholic tendencies are shifted from a short-term fix to an ongoing obsession?
One way is to use a simple 7-question quick developed by Norwegian researchers called The Bergen Work Addiction Scale.
For each of the following questions rate them as things you do either Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, and Always:
- Think of how you can free up more time to work.
- Spend much more time working than initially intended.
- Work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and depression
- Have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
- Become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
- Deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
- Work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.
If you answer “Often” or “Always” on at least 4 of the 7 criteria, you’re either a workaholic or at serious risk of becoming one.
A 3-step plan to bounce back from work addiction
So what do you do? While there’s no easy answer to workaholism, there are a few things you can do now to help protect yourself.
First, admit you have an issue. In our current productivity-obsessed culture, it’s easy to ignore your workaholism. But in order to create a healthy work-life balance, you have to accept when you’ve gone too far in one direction.
Next, look for the root cause. Again, it’s easy to lie to yourself that you’re just working hard to get through a tough project or hit a deadline. Be honest. If it helps, try to identify your “shadow intentions”. These are the (usually unconscious) motivators for why you act the way you do.
For example, you might think you’re just trying to hit a deadline. But your shadow intention could be a feeling of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, an underlying fear of failure or perfectionism. Understanding what motivates you and causes you to be a workaholic can help you take the next step.
Finally, make a plan and follow through with it. This could mean scheduling specific work hours. Focusing on one thing at a time instead of multitasking. Learning to re-prioritize when things come up rather than chaotically trying to cram everything in. Or even setting hard boundaries around work so you can learn to disconnect.
We weren’t meant to work constantly (so why should we think about it 24/7?)
There’s more to life than work. And disconnecting and giving yourself time away from your job doesn’t make you any less of a dedicated employee. In fact, as we’ve written in the past, the most productive people often work less and give themselves more free time.
If you find yourself obsessing over your work, remember that you can’t do it all. Take a minute to understand why you’ve become a workaholic, and then work to give yourself the space you need to live a happy, balanced life.