Work addiction often leads to burnout & profoundly disrupts the rest of your life.
What are you thinking about while reading this? Are you present, or do you have racing thoughts, wishing you could get back to your job? Are you running on fumes yet brainstorming ideas for that next project? Do you find that nagging thoughts about productivity occupy your brain, even when having dinner with your family or falling asleep at night?
Well, I’ve got news for you. You might be a workaholic. And there’s no shame in realizing this is something you struggle with. Identifying how your workaholic symptoms impact your wellbeing and health is a crucial starting point for learning healthy boundaries and better work-life balance.
Work addiction isn’t your fault, and you’re certainly not alone. With hustle culture, toxic productivity, and unhealthy remote work habits breathing down our necks, workaholism is a symptom of the times we’re living in. But the willingness to learn more about this addiction is a great sign that you’re on your way to better days.
Now let’s get into recognizing signs of workaholism and learning how to stop being a workaholic. Your mental health will thank you — big time.
What Is A Workaholic?
I know, the label “workaholic” gets thrown around so casually that it might not seem like a big deal. You might even be rolling your eyes right now! I get it. But the truth is workaholism is a serious issue, and we often misuse the term.
So what is a workaholic? It’s a mental health issue where folks experience “an uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” More than just a desire to work hard, it’s a compulsive drive — an obsession — involving constant thoughts about work and feelings of guilt and restlessness when not working.
Though the phrase was coined over 50 years ago, there’s still no single medical definition for workaholism, making this issue easy to miss and challenging to be taken seriously.
More Than Just Working Hard
Understanding workaholism can be a bit tricky. Many non-workaholics may fall under the workaholic definition at some point in their careers. I mean, most of us have felt that uncontrollable need to continue working when a deadline is approaching or during a hectic time of year.
But there’s a difference between passionately caring about your job and chronically being unable to disconnect from it. Being a workaholic isn’t about finding your career so intrinsically fulfilling that you want to spend more time focused on it. Instead, workaholism is driven by a compulsive need to work, even when it’s not enjoyable.
And contrary to popular belief, excessive working hours aren’t always workaholic symptoms. You can work 80 hours without being a workaholic and experience work addiction while clocking under 40 hours. The telltale indicator is when your job becomes an all-encompassing obsession that negatively impacts the other elements of your life.
It’s about more than regular workplace stress. Work addiction involves constant rumination on the work you could or should be doing, and it often pairs with stress, anxiety, and poor sleep quality, leads to burnout, and profoundly disrupts the rest of your life.
Remember that workaholism is an actual addiction similar to alcoholism or other substance abuse. So, in the same way some folks can drink regularly without growing dependent on it, some workers can acutely manage heavy workloads and periods of high stress. The difference is when you become consumed by a guilt-driven, destructive work ethic long-term.
Am I A Workaholic? Signs of Workaholism
Even though there’s no universal medical definition of workaholism, researchers at the University of Bergen identified a set of seven workaholic symptoms to determine if someone experiences work addiction. This Bergen Work Addiction Scale is a great tool to help you learn how to know if you are a workaholic.
Rate how strongly you identify with the following statements using the scale Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or Always:
- You think of how you can free up more time to work.
- You spend much more time working than initially intended.
- You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and depression.
- You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
- You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
- You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.
If you score Often or Always on at least four of these workaholic symptoms, you may be experiencing work addiction.
Some other signs of workaholism include:
- Feeling guilty when you aren’t working or doing something you see as “productive”
- Difficulty delegating to others
- Having an intense fear of failure or paranoia about workplace performance
- Exclusively prioritizing work while neglecting other aspects of your life, including health
- Compulsively thinking about work when off the clock
- Hiding or lying about elements of your work habits to others
- Using work to avoid relationships, uncomfortable emotions, or dealing with crises
Why Does Workaholism Happen?
We’re all faced with enormous pressure to live up to the standards we see online, whether that’s someone crushing an intense workout, meal-prepping for the week, and deep-cleaning the house all before 8 am or the uber-capitalist (not to mention ageist) obsession of “30 under 30” lists. Constant exposure to this hustle culture “grindset” and praise for folks burning themselves out unsurprisingly encourages unhealthy work habits.
So when toxic productivity (and toxic work environment!) culture shames us for resting, doing things purely for enjoyment, or otherwise tells us everything we do has to be a means to an end, of course, we start internalizing this mindset.
Pair this with today’s economic climate, and it’s a recipe for workaholism. Inadequate compensation that doesn’t reflect the true cost of living means that workers these days don’t have the same security and financial stability that our grandparents did. This leads some folks to work multiple jobs or fight to stay “valuable” to their current employer while fearing mass layoffs. We have no choice but to continue striving for more, working harder, and unintentionally encouraging our own exploitation until we face burnout.
No wonder unhealthy work habits develop when we have all this on our plates just to keep food on our plates.
And while none of this is new, the pandemic brought a quick shift to remote work. With no physical separation between work and personal lives and little else to do in lockdowns, the problem was exacerbated.
Along with the plethora of cultural and societal factors that encourage workaholic behaviors, certain personality traits, backgrounds, and more also play a role.
People who are at high risk for developing workaholic tendencies include those who:
- Score higher on the following personality traits: neuroticism, agreeableness, and intellect/imagination
- Experience other mental health conditions, like bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, or depression
- Are socialized as women
- Face highly demanding jobs
The Serious Side Effects of Being a Workaholic
Work addiction can severely impact all aspects of your health — mentally, relationally, emotionally, and physically. Ironically, it can also negatively impact your job performance. But it’s no surprise that work addiction has dangerous consequences. Your body isn’t made to experience chronic stress!
From burnout to lowering your life expectancy, the science shows that you may be susceptible to these workaholic negative effects:
- Sleep issues, including sleeping fewer hours, poorer quality sleep, morning tiredness, and sleeping while driving may lead to higher cardiovascular risk, crankiness, and impaired memory
- Increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, especially in those regularly working over 55 hours per week
- Depression and stress
- High risk of inflammation, which can lead to other diseases over time, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergies, arthritis and joint diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and metabolic disorders
- Weakened immune system
- Isolation and conflict in personal relationships
- Psychological distress
- Worsened life satisfaction
- Poorer job performance, productivity, creativity, and problem-solving
There are endless ways workaholism negatively impacts both the individual and those around them. But you don’t have to stay in this cycle.
How to Stop Being a Workaholic
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but workaholism won’t be defeated overnight. It’s a journey — one that may not always be easy. But as cliche as it sounds, even asking, “Am I a workaholic?” is the first step to unlearning this behavior. It’s only up from here!
Try implementing some of the following suggestions to disrupt your workaholic productivity routine. Just remember that this is a jumping-off point, not the whole process. Work addiction is a serious issue, and there’s never shame in seeking further help.
- Make a plan for your week. Pre-scheduling your week can help you make time for things you often push aside in favor of work. Having a set calendar keeps you accountable to plans in your personal life (and those you make plans with) while supporting a healthy work-life balance that honors your needs and priorities.
- Lean on those around you. Sit down with your boss, partner, friends, family — whoever! — and let them know you need support. Sometimes, this may involve brainstorming tangible changes you can make together or delegating to peers. Other times, you’ll just know you have folks in your corner. All are equally valuable.
- Disconnect with Freedom. Have more focused work sessions and take better breaks when you shut off the digital world. Or most of it. It’s a win-win! Use Freedom to limit distracting sites so you can do more quality work in less time, and block job-related apps when off the clock.
- Check-in with yourself. Set designated times throughout the day to check in with your needs, moods, priorities, etc. Do a body scan on your lunch break to notice what you’re feeling, or consider if drinking more water would help your brain function better in a mid-afternoon slump. Though small, these acts of self-care remind you that you’re a person first — and that you might be able to work smarter, not longer.
- Find things to look forward to. Seek excitement outside of work to gain fulfillment from other sources. Whether it’s a nice dinner with your friend or just changing into sweats when you get home, it’s crucial to find motivators that’ll make logging off joyful.
- Understand your limits. Advocate for yourself when you have too much on your plate, and be honest about when you’re struggling. It may feel uncomfortable to be vulnerable like this, but it’ll get easier with time. Remember that you’re just one person — not Superman.
- Seek professional help. Reaching out to healthcare professionals like doctors, therapists, and psychologists is a powerful step. Knowing you need more help than those around you can offer is one of the bravest choices.
What Employers Can Do to Prevent Workaholism
Workaholism starts in the workplace, so that’s the first place you need to make changes. Managers, CEOs, and HR departments: you hold a ton of power here. So use it to promote better mental health, reduce stress, and create an environment where workaholism simply can’t thrive.
Here are some steps you can take as you learn how to overcome workaholism within your company:
- Implement a 4-day work week. Shortening your business week shows you believe that work isn’t everything, so it shouldn’t be for your employees, either. Making this change is shown to boost worker happiness, satisfaction, and overall health. And it’s not counter-intuitive: 4-day work weeks typically don’t impact productivity — and if they do, it’s for the better!
- Respect your employees’ right to disconnect. Countries across the globe have legislated workers’ “right to disconnect,” protecting employees’ rights to not answer work communications when off the clock without fear of retaliation. But even if it’s not in law where you live, you can still make this a company policy.
- Encourage asynchronous communication. Promoting asynchronous communication gives staff the flexibility to answer messages at times that make sense for them instead of responding immediately. Granting permission to communicate at their own pace supports a culture of trust, empowers employees to self-manage, and boosts deep working abilities.
- Build a culture of trust. Throw employee monitoring out the door! Truly healthy workplaces operate from a place of trust and empowerment. Believe that your staff is doing their best, open up dialogue about their wellbeing, and be there when they need your support.
- Promote workplace wellness programs. Supporting mental health initiatives is a significant way to reduce workaholic tendencies. This looks different for every space and budget, but consider adding on-site movement facilities, healthy food options, employee assistance programs, and comprehensive insurance that includes mental health benefits. But know that this means nothing without humane policies in place too.
Prioritize Your Mental Health and Find Freedom from Workaholism
Workaholism is a severe issue that can devastate someone’s life, health, and overall wellbeing. While this guide may help you change your habits and implement better boundaries, it’s a limited resource. If you think you’re a workaholic, it may be beneficial to seek further help from a professional.
Remember that overwork can also be an early indicator of workaholism or an unhealthy relationship with work. Stay attuned to your moods and habits to notice if workaholic tendencies start creeping into your life. The first step to a healthy work-life balance is knowing something needs to change, so you’re already on your way there!