“I didn’t think the 70- to 80-hour workweeks were a problem until I realized I had literally no life outside of work,” explains Cortney Edmondson. “The times I did spend with friends were mostly spent binge drinking to gain some temporary relief/dissociation,” she adds.
Within the first three years of working in a super competitive career, Edmondson had developed severe insomnia. She was only sleeping about eight hours a week — most of those hours on Fridays as soon as she got off work.
She believes she found herself unfulfilled and burnt out ultimately because she was trying to prove to herself that she was enough.
As a result, Edmondson found herself chasing unrealistic goals, then discovering that when she met the goal or deadline, it was only a temporary fix.
If Edmondson’s story sounds familiar, it may be time to take inventory of your work habits and how they affect your life.
Even though the term “workaholic” has been watered down, work addiction, or workaholism, is a real condition. People with this mental health condition are unable to stop putting in unnecessarily long hours at the office or obsessing over their work performance.
While workaholics may use overwork as an escape from personal problems, workaholism can also damage relationships and physical and mental health. Work addiction is more common in women and people who describe themselves as perfectionists.
According to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, if you or your loved ones feel that work is consuming your life, it’s likely that you’re on the workaholism spectrum.
Being able to identify the signs of work addiction is critical if you want to take the initial steps to make changes.
While there are many ways workaholism develops, there are a few clear signs to be aware of:
- You routinely take work home with you.
- You often stay late at the office.
- You continually check email or texts while at home.
Additionally, Manly says that if time with family, exercise, healthy eating, or your social life begin to suffer as a result of a packed work schedule, it’s likely that you have some workaholic tendencies. You can find additional symptoms here.
Researchers interested in finding out more about work addiction developed an instrument that measures the degree of workaholism: the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. It looks at seven basic criteria to identify work addiction:
- 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’ve been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
- You become stressed if you’re prohibited from working.
- You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has hurt your health.
Answering “often” or “always” to at least four of these seven statements may suggest that you have work addiction.
Both men and women experience work addiction and work stress. But research shows that women tend to experience workaholism more, and their health seems to be more at risk.
A study found that women who work more than 45 hours a week are at risk for developing diabetes. But the diabetes risk for women who work under 40 hours decreases significantly.
What’s so interesting about these findings is that men don’t face an increased risk for diabetes by working longer hours.
“Women tend to suffer considerably higher levels of work-related stress, anxiety, and depression than men, with workplace sexism and familial responsibilities providing additional career pressures,” explains psychologist Tony Tan.
Women also frequently face the additional workplace pressure of feeling like they:
- have to work twice as hard and long to prove they’re as good as their male colleagues
- aren’t valued (or aren’t being promoted)
- face unequal pay
- lack managerial support
- are expected to balance work and family life
- need to do everything “right”
Dealing with all these added pressures often leaves women feeling completely drained.
“Many women feel they have to work twice as hard and twice as long to be considered on par with their male colleagues or to move ahead,” explains licensed clinical professional counselor Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC.
“It’s almost as if we [women] have to prove ourselves as being indestructible in order to be considered equal or worthy of consideration,” she adds.
The problem, she says, is that we are destructible, and overworking can lead to mental and physical health problems.
To help you or a loved one determine where you may fall on the workaholism scale, Yasmine S. Ali, MD, president of Nashville Preventive Cardiology and author of a forthcoming book on workplace wellness, developed this quiz.
Grab a pen and get ready to dig deep to answer these questions about work addiction.
Knowing when it’s time to take a step back from work is difficult. But with the right guidance and support, you can minimize the negative impact of work stress and change your workaholic patterns.
One of the first steps, according to Manly, is to take an objective look at your life needs and goals. See what and where you can pare down work to create a better balance.
You can also give yourself a reality check. “If work is negatively impacting your home life, friendships, or health, remember that no amount of money or career gain is worth sacrificing your key relationships or future health,” Manly says.
Taking time for yourself is also important. Try setting aside 15 to 30 minutes every night to sit, reflect, meditate, or read.
Lastly, consider attending a Workaholics Anonymous meeting. You’ll be surrounded by and sharing with others who are also dealing with work addiction and stress. JC, who is one of their leaders, says there are several takeaways you’ll gain from attending a meeting. The three she believes are the most helpful are:
- Workaholism is a disease, not a moral failing.
- You are not alone.
- You do recover when you work the 12 steps.
Recovery from work addiction is possible. If you think you’re experiencing workaholism but aren’t sure how to take the first step toward recovery, set up an appointment with a therapist. They’ll be able to help you assess your tendencies toward overwork and develop a treatment plan.
Sara Lindberg, BS, MEd, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.