Workaholic Woes: Recognising the Signs and Finding Balance

Most addictions are perceived negatively and feel like a badge of shame, but for workaholics, it can feel like a source of pride. After all, our work culture prizes people who can put in the hours.

However, it’s important to understand that our careers are a marathon, not a sprint: in the long run, overwork takes its toll on our health and our productivity, so workaholics increasingly find it impossible to live up to their own high standards.

The good news is that tackling compulsive overwork can improve both your well-being and your job performance. Here’s how to recognise the signs and identify if you might have a problem.

Obsessing over work is worse than long hours

It isn’t just about how much you work. Research shows that employees who worked more than 40 hours a week but who switched off when the day was done didn’t have an increased risk of health problems.

On the other hand, workaholics tended to struggle to psychologically detach from work, had greater risk of heart problems, reported more need for recovery and experienced more depressive feelings.

Look out for these health problems

So, if you’re worried that your high-pressure job is leaning you towards a workaholic schedule, watch for symptoms rather than counting hours.

According to Forbes, mental health professionals treating workaholics often find sufferers reporting headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal issues, increased irritability and tiredness and reliance on alcohol to manage stress. Anxiety and depression are also common.

Restore balance by setting clear rules

One former workaholic told the BBC that he had conquered his compulsions with the help of Workaholics Anonymous, which enabled him to set firm boundaries.

“It’s having a plan and following a plan versus compulsively diving into whatever pops up,” says the ex-workaholic, who gave his name as Bob. That meant scheduling work hours and breaks, focusing on one task at a time, and carefully prioritising if unexpected events arose, rather than trying to do everything.

Get external support 

Workaholic behaviour is all about taking on too much responsibility. So when it comes to breaking the cycle, collaboration is crucial; “You can’t do it alone,” says Stewart Friedman, Professor of Management at the Wharton School.

Enlist friends and family to help keep you accountable to your rejuvenated work-life boundaries. Armed with the evidence that your work compulsions might actually be reducing your productivity, you may also be able to involve your boss and co-workers in setting sensible limits on your responsibilities.

Loving your work can protect you from some harms

If you love your work, is it really that stressful? Everyone has their limit on how much they can work, but there is some evidence that job satisfaction can protect against the health risks of workaholism. So, retraining for a more rewarding role or fulfilling career path can be one route to lowering stress.

“Workaholics who love their jobs are somewhat protected from the most severe health risks,” says Lieke ten Brummelhuis, Assistant Professor at the Beedie School of Business in Simon Fraser University. “This may be because they feel that their work is worth all the hard work they put in.”

So, what can we conclude? Essentially, that the blurred lines between commitment and workaholism in today’s fast-paced work culture demand our attention. While long hours at the office might be seen by some as a sign of dedication, being unable to switch off and mentally detach from work can lead to significant health problems. Thankfully, by developing structured work habits, utilising external support where necessary, and building a genuine love for the job, we can help to reduce the issues.