"Workaholic" is a term we have all heard before - mostly to poke fun at our friends who are stuck in overtime - maybe they're working their butt off to save for a trip, or maybe their business is short-staffed and they're making up for it. 48% of Americans self-identify as a workaholic, but 28% of those people say that they do it out of financial need. In a paper by Grifiths, Lisha, and Sussman (2011), they indicated that approximately 10% of Americans have a true addiction to work. The casualty with the usage of the term, and the 38% difference between true addiction and self-identification statistics, lead us to believe that we may be confused about what workaholism really is.
So what is a workaholic?
Workaholics are people who cannot help themselves from working, who are compelled to work (even when they don't want to). It is an irresistible urge, much like any other addiction - it is not the same thing as loving your work, or being overworked by your company. The American Psychological Association defines workaholics as "the compulsive need to work and to do so to an excessive degree. A workaholic is one who has trouble refraining from work."
How do I know if I'm really a workaholic, or just enjoy my job?
There's a big difference between enjoying your career while still being more than ready to take a vacation, and being so engrossed in your work that it's becoming a defining feature of your personality. There are a few signs to look out for in yourself, or your loved ones, to keep workaholism at bay.
You're always at work. This one is MAJOR. In terms of time, there are 168 hours in a week. If you are working a full-time job, you should only be giving roughly 40 hours during that week to your employment. 24% of your week is spent at work, and the rest of the time should be spent sleeping, relaxing, enjoying time with friends, having life experiences, etc. If you're saying no to outside experiences and spending all your time at work, there may be a problem.
You bring work home with you. Whether it's finishing up a few things after dinner (which translates to a few hours of work), or checking your work emails at a concert intermission - you are never mentally far away from your job. There are always circumstances to finish up a project with a tight deadline, or to cover in emergency purposes - but this behavior should not become habitual.
You work to avoid negative feelings. Work is good, and the more you work the more positively you are received by your employers. Working late? Shows them you're dedicated. What isn't being addressed is that sometimes, we work late to avoid the feelings of anxiety, depression, or loneliness that hit us like a ton of bricks when we get home from work. Considering that so many businesses sloganize to "leave your problems at the door", or "at home" - it makes it hard to want to go back into that space and face the issues.
You work for the positive feelings. The number one danger of workaholism is that in our money-hungry corporate environment, it is more commonly rewarded than not. But the dark side of this is that being a human who is seeking gratification, and being constantly affirmed that you're so great at your job, you're so smart and quick and efficient, provide dopamine boosts - which can be extremely addictive to your brain. This can lead to excessive working to continue proving to those around you that you are "the best", and chasing the dopamine that comes from doing so.
Break? Who's that? When was the last time you took a break in the middle of the day? Went for a walk, ran an errand on a workday, actually ate your lunch at a restaurant instead of at your desk? Your vacation time commonly stacks up throughout the year and goes unused, even when a company promotes their employees getting away from the work and clearing their heads. Often times, you even struggle to even stay away from work when you are sick.
No work? Only stress. You feel anxious or stressed out when you aren't working. This is going to help you not take breaks during the day, because when you try to the only thing you're thinking of is work. Just because you've walked away from the building, doesn't mean that you aren't still stuck in work mode. Thinking about all the things you have left to do makes you stressed out, and the only way to turn that stress off is to "be productive" - which often immediately turns into "get back to work". If your brain is spinning around deadlines and work details, but you're supposed to be paying attention to the task at hand, you may have a problem.
What happens next?
Reading through the symptoms above, are you feeling a little called out? Like I'm airing your dirty laundry? Don't worry - I have suggestions for solutions as well!
Be direct in your decision to fix the problem. Step one in any addition situation is to accept that you are addicted. Once you get past that hump, and make the conscious decision to pursue change, you'll have the momentum to put the work in and continue to grow.
Talk with your supervisor. This one feels hard, but needs to be done. Your supervisor should be aware that you are overworking yourself out of compulsion, and that you can't stop without help. Making them aware of your addiction can help them help you manage your workload, or check on you and make sure you're taking lunch breaks. A good boss will not want you to have a poor work-life balance, and they definitely won't want you to suffer through exhaustion and overwhelm.
Set boundaries. This is another one that feels hard. Start small - leave work on time every day for a week. Take a half hour break in the middle of the day and, even if you don't go all the way out to eat or leave the campus, take yourself on a walk and try to stay present the entire time. Sometimes this is challenging when you work from home - if you have an accountability buddy, utilize them. But if not, set yourself alarms to shut down the computer completely at 5. You can also consider getting a work phone and locking it in your desk drawer at the end of the day when you shut the computer down, to keep you from reading and replying to work emails after hours.
Make a plan to rest, and keep it. Set aside specific time in your schedule to rest, and hold yourself to it. Put it on your calendar if you have to, but it's extremely important to provide your brain with rest time. Rest doesn't have to mean laying down, or sleeping - rest involves your brain operating in a casual, level way. What things did you used to love to do before your addiction crept in? Take your family outside for the weekend, or plan a short trip with that stacking PTO balance. Whatever you do, make sure you give yourself time to enjoy the life you're building outside of work.
Be healthy everywhere. Especially if you have a desk job, it's always important to be conscious of your full body health as well. Eating right, hydrating appropriately, and staying active are all major components to your overall health - make sure you get some sleep, too!
Talk to a professional. If your workaholism feels overwhelming to you, or seems like an insurmountable struggle, reach out to a professional. Trained counselors and therapists can provide insight and suggestion on how to address your issues, and can help you take them step by step with the support you need to get there. If you are in a circumstance of overworking/becoming a workaholic to avoid other emotional problems, such as anxiety or depression, a therapist can help you overcome those feelings as well - which will, in turn, help you with the workaholism.
Make sure you're actually at the right job. If you read through this blog and thought "sure, okay, not my boss/not at my job though", then guess what? You need a new job. You may be in a toxic work environment that is directly affecting your emotional health, and in turn reflecting into workaholism. Your company pressures you or guilts you for taking a vacation, or your boss belittles you and makes you really feel the need to prove yourself - you should get out of there.
No job is worth risking your mental health and wellbeing.
Coleman, K. (2021, September 23). Are you a workaholic? 7 tips to overcome it. Ramsey Solutions. Retrieved September 1, 2022, from https://www.ramseysolutions.com/personal-growth/are-you-a-workaholic
Inc, C. (2017, September 1). Workaholism facts. Clockify. Retrieved September 1, 2022, from https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts#workaholism-chapter-4