Are those late nights you’re pulling a sign of something deeper?
Growing up, my father was always working.
Many nights, he’d leave before I would wake up for school and he’d return at 7:30 p.m. at night — or later. Other times, he’d be away working for weeks at a time.
He often brought work home with him at night and on family trips, and he talked about it all of the time. Most of his friends were colleagues, and he struggled to unplug from work, even around family.
When he retired, it didn’t take long for him to try to work again. He became a consultant for a while. Then he started turning daily chores into work.
He didn’t know what to do with himself when he no longer had something to do every day. He still spends hours in front of his computer every day, “working.”
As a child, I thought this work ethic was normal. It was what successful people did: They worked all the time. Long hours and little work-life balance were just the price of getting ahead and earning a good salary.
As a result, I tried emulating it.
I thought the hours you put into something dictated your success. That it was the “true” measure of your dedication to getting ahead.
As a student, I’d spend hours on homework, essays, or studying in the library. I didn’t go to parties or spend time with friends. I’d stay up all night and acted like doing that was some sort of badge of honor, a sure sign I would one day be just as successful as my father.
I thought calling yourself a “workaholic” was a good thing.
The only problem: I couldn’t keep this up.
This kind of work ethic was neither healthy nor a good thing. And it was only years later that the long hours, high stress, and little sleep started affecting my health.
That’s when I realized there was a problem.
The term “workaholism” was first used in 1971 by psychologist Wayne Oates, and he defined it as a compulsion or an uncontrollable need to work incessantly.
Since then, psychologists and mental health researchers have squabbled over the definition.
Though it isn’t a formally recognized diagnosable disorder in the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), one thing is clear: It’s very much a real mental health condition and it can have a very real impact on people’s lives.
“Work addiction is a complex condition in which an individual develops a psychological, emotional, and social dependence on work,” explains Matt Glowiak, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Illinois. “It is chronic and progressive.”
Dr. Brian Wind, clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at an addiction treatment center, agrees.
“People with work addiction often work compulsively at the expense of other aspects of their lives,” he explains. “They may work long hours even when it is not needed, sacrifice sleep to get work done, and be paranoid about their work performance. They may be obsessive about thinking of ways to free up more time for work and become stressed if they are stopped from working.”
Work addiction is not the same as merely working long hours, which is part of what makes it so hard to spot
Even back in 1998, the United States was believed to have some of highest rates of people working more than 50 hours per week, but that doesn’t mean we’re a nation of workaholics.
Certain professions simply rely on long work hours. Just because someone has one of those jobs doesn’t mean they’re necessarily addicted to what they do.
However, “our culture rewards people who work hard,” Wind explains. This means that if we do have a problem, we may not realize it.
“We may be getting praise and recognition from supervisors and teammates, which encourages us to work harder without recognizing that we have an addiction,” Wind says. “We may justify our behavior by saying that we have ambition and are working towards achieving success.”
So what’s the difference between someone who merely works long hours and a true workaholic? The person addicted to work struggles to psychologically detach from work, even when they’re away from the office.
When you struggle to detach from work, you ruminate. This can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems, according to a
Under chronic stress, your body begins to see impacts, such as high blood pressure and high cortisol levels, according to a 2013 research review.
This puts you at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even death.
In addition, work addiction can impact your relationships, leading to:
Sometimes, workaholism can coexist with another mental health condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or bipolar disorder.
Treatment is possible, but you have to recognize you have a problem first.
“I often tell my clients ‘It’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle,’” says Terry McDougall, an author and career coach who works with clients to find more work-life balance in their lives.
“They simply don’t have enough distance from themselves to see what is actually happening. They are so focused on getting their validation through work that they may fail to see the cost to relationships or their health,” says McDougall.
Their actions may even be related to a survival response.
“Often high achievers can become work addicted, and it is because they have been rewarded for many years for delaying gratification, and it becomes a habit,” he continues. “People who have driven themselves to excel through school and their career — and who have been rewarded for it — may have a hard time understanding that they will not be endangered if they slow down.”
It doesn’t help that workaholics often grow up in families with other workaholics, which makes that around-the-clock behavior seem normal. It becomes a deeply ingrained value that’s hard to shake.
Workaholism can also develop out of trauma, because work can become a coping mechanism to help them get through. “[But] if the trauma is not resolved, it can be hard to stop the behavior that they used to cope with the trauma,” McDougall says.
For example, he worked with a client who started working full-time while caring for her sick mother and sister as a teenager.
“At the time, it was a necessity to ensure her survival,” McDougall says. “However, much later when she was on her own and doing well in her career, she still held the same underlying belief that she might not survive if she didn’t work herself so hard.”
Once you recognize that you may have a problem, there are things you can do to try to develop a healthier work ethic:
1. Set a ‘stop time’ for work and stick to it
“This forces us to stop for a certain time and wait until the next day to start again,” Wind explains. “It can help us make time to relax and unwind.”
It’s a good idea to make yourself stop for lunch, too.
Admittedly, for a person who feels a compulsive need to work, this is often the most difficult step. But try to remember that you can work smarter to keep your workday shorter.
“Intelligent, efficient work is as — if not more — productive than spending additional time on something,” Glowiak says.
A person addicted to work might be inclined to think that time dictates success, but the reality is, if that work can be done in less time more efficiently, that’s the better way to work.
So, setting time limits on yourself can force work efficiency.
“There are many tasks that do require a specific set of time, and that is OK,” Glowiak says. “In most cases, though, we can be more efficient. This is not about taking shortcuts or sacrificing work but eliminating nonsense to reclaim our lives. Once we set boundaries and stand firm, others will adjust and follow.”
2. Schedule activities after your workday is over
For example, plan to go for a walk, meditate, write in a journal, or make dinner after work. Creating a routine, Wind explains, can help give workaholics structure and keep them engaged, even when they’re not actually working.
“It is important that one finds what works for oneself — this will be different for everyone,” says Glowiak. “But when such activities are found, they may serve as a health distraction from work.”
3. Make time for friends and family
If it helps, schedule that time on your calendar at first so you don’t forget. Taking the time for them will help mend relationships and help you recover.
4. Seek help from a therapist or counselor if you’re struggling
They can work with you to understand your compulsive need to work and help you work to minimize the negative effects of overworking. If you also have a coexisting mental health condition, such as OCD or bipolar disorder, they can help develop a treatment plan that works for you.
You can also try inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs, as well as group therapy options such as Workaholics Anonymous.
If you’re addicted to work, you’ll feel a compulsive need to do your job. When you’re away from it, you’ll find it difficult to “turn off,” which can affect your mental and physical health as well as your personal relationships.
The good news is, there’s help. If you think work addiction applies to you, know that you do have options.
“The most successful people know that their time is valuable, but they continue to make time for activities outside work,” Wind says. “A healthy work-life balance can make a person happier, energized, and more refreshed, which in turn leads to more creativity and efficiency at work.”
Simone M. Scully is a new mom and journalist who writes about health, science, and parenting. Find her on her website or on Facebook and Twitter.