Workaholism: Sure, it’s a buzzword in corporate America, but it’s not just a trendy word or a go-getter attitude. It’s an addiction that can seriously affect both your personal and professional life.
If you think you may be a workaholic, there’s no shame here—but let’s take a closer look at what that means and how to overcome it so you can get healthy and start truly enjoying your job.
What Is a Workaholic?
A workaholic is someone who feels a compulsion, or an irresistible urge, to work whether they want to or not. It’s not the same as really loving your work, and it’s not the same as being overworked—it’s a legitimate addiction. To put it in more scientific terms, the American Psychological Association defines workaholism as “the compulsive need to work and to do so to an excessive degree. A workaholic is one who has trouble refraining from work.”1
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When you’re overworked, the problem comes from an outside source (in most cases). For example, your boss might be demanding and putting pressure on you to work overtime, or you might be trying to complete a difficult project with a tight deadline. Being overworked can sometimes go hand in hand with workaholism, but workaholism can also exist in very healthy work environments. Being a workaholic is more about your personal work habits and motivations.
Signs You’re a Workaholic
If any of this is starting to sound like I’m reading your mail, but you’re still not sure if you meet the criteria, here are some more signs that can help you figure it out.
You spend more time at work than anywhere else.
There are 168 hours in a week, and a full-time job should take up about 40 of them, more or less. That’s only about 24% of your week! If your work percentage is way more than that—and you’re saying no to other things like important events, sleep, errands or time with your family so you can get more work done—there may be a problem.
You bring work home.
“I’ll just finish a few things at home” can easily turn into another three hours of work in your home office after dinner. I get it, folks. There might be some times throughout your career when you really need to hustle and get your project done. But it shouldn’t become a habit.
And these days, it’s easier than ever to constantly check your email and work messages from your phone and not be fully present (even if you’re trying to do something fun), so the habit becomes even harder to break.
You work to avoid unpleasant feelings.
It might seem like depression, anxiety, loneliness, unresolved conflict and other stressful feelings can all be avoided by staying late at the office (which can make working overtime start to look really appealing). When you “leave your problems at home,” it’s tempting to avoid going back there to face them again.
But the truth is, those issues don’t just stay at your house anyway. You’re still going to feel the negative effects at work. So it’s better to deal with those issues directly and in a healthy way—by talking them out with someone or seeing a counselor—rather than trying to stuff them down and escape by working more. That’s not sustainable, and it will really take a toll on your body.
Another type of difficult feeling you might be trying to avoid is the feeling of failure. Here’s a common pattern: Work gets stressful and hectic. You don’t want to admit that you can’t finish everything yourself. You don’t ask for help because you’re comparing yourself to your coworkers who never ask for help. The work piles up, and the only way to get it all done in time is by working crazy hours.
In reality, admitting you can’t do it all is really healthy. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed—it means you’re a human being.
You work to feel positive feelings.
One of the most dangerous things about workaholism is that it’s often rewarded. Work’s a good thing, right? When people see you working late, they might say things like “she’s so diligent” or “he’s a real team player,” and anybody would want to hear that.
But there’s a dark side to affirmation, and it’s a problem when your identity becomes wrapped up in your work. Maybe you want others to think you’re the best at your job, so you work yourself silly trying to please them and get the recognition you crave. Positive feedback can give you a shot of dopamine (in the same way that someone liking your photo on social media makes you feel happy), which can be highly addictive.
But in the long run, being a people pleaser at work will only leave you feeling burned out and resentful.
You can’t remember the last time you took a break.
I don’t just mean a vacation. Maybe it’s been a while since you actually took a lunch break. You can often be found eating at your desk, even if the employees at your company are encouraged to step away from work to recharge their brains for a while.
Maybe your paid time off usually goes unused year after year, and you struggle with the idea of staying home even when you’re sick. And you definitely haven’t been anywhere close to a beach in a long, long time.
You get stressed when you’re not working.
One of the reasons why you can’t seem to take a break is because when you try to, you can’t stop thinking about work. You can relax for a little while, but then your mind wanders to all the unfinished tasks or the mountain of stuff you could be getting done if you just—you know—worked a little more.
Those thoughts make you feel stressed, and the only thing that makes you feel better is doing something “productive.” (Note: This is eerily similar to how a person who’s addicted to cigarettes feels on edge if they go too long without smoking.) In reality, the quality of your work and your productivity go down if you don’t take time to rest and recharge.
You don’t like to call yourself a workaholic.
Friends, family members and even your coworkers have pointed out that your work habits are a little extreme, and that they miss having you around. They might’ve even used the word workaholic to describe you. But it’s not how you’d describe yourself. You’re not a workaholic—you’re just a hard worker. Right? Right?
Well, if several of these signs hit home for you, it might be time to face the music and start developing some healthier habits. And please hear me on this: Workaholism shouldn’t be a badge of honor, but it shouldn’t be a source of shame, either. Don’t beat yourself up if you know you have an unhealthy relationship with your work. Just be honest about it and be proud of yourself for taking the initiative to change.
7 Ways to Overcome Workaholism
This isn’t going to be an easy, overnight fix. But the good news is, you don’t have to fight this alone! There are people and resources who can help and support you along the way as you work toward being healthy and fulfilled in your work. Here are seven ways to start overcoming workaholism:
1. Commit to fixing the problem.
Step one for anyone struggling with addiction is admitting that there’s a problem. Once you’ve admitted it to yourself and decided that you want to change, you’ll have the momentum to put in the work to make a change. Keep the light at the end of the tunnel in mind. Imagine the less stressed, more engaged, more rested version of yourself and aim for that.
2. Talk to your boss.
Sit down with your leader and have an honest conversation about the habits you’ve been noticing in yourself and see if you can come up with a plan to change those habits. A good boss won’t want you to have a poor work-life balance, and they won’t want you to feel overwhelmed and exhausted—especially if it’s affecting your job performance.
If there’s too much on your plate, your leader might be able to help by making sure all the work’s divided evenly among the team or deprioritizing some tasks. Or maybe they can just check in every once in a while and hold you accountable to taking a lunch break.
3. Practice setting boundaries.
This one might be hard at first, but practice leaving work on time, not checking your work email once you get home, and not doing anything work related over the weekend. You might need an accountability partner for this, or you might need to try putting your phone someplace in your home that’s not easily accessible.
This becomes extra challenging if you work from home—you or someone you love might need to force you to shut the computer off at 5 p.m. It might hurt the first few times, but when you push through and see that nothing bad happens as a result, that’s a step in the right direction.