Are You a Workaholic? Here's What to do about it

(In the first article in this two-part series, I outlined what the research says about workaholism, how to tell if you are indeed a workaholic, and the potential negative consequences of it. In this article, I tell you how to move beyond it).

One of my friends used to work for a busy corporate law firm. And, as you might expect, she frequently shared with me that  she and her colleagues were often consumed by their jobs.  They were devoted to keeping their clients happy, and as a result, they would travel across the country at the drop of a hat if needed, hold meetings or phone calls early in the morning or late in the evening to accommodate clients, and work on evenings or weekends to ensure that they were as responsive as possible. The firm set aggressive productivity goals for them, and as lifelong high achievers, they did their best to meet them by cramming their days with as much billable work as possible, working through lunch, rushing from meeting to meeting, and limiting down time (because “down” time wasn’t billable).

The combination of the environment calling for a great deal of work, along with individual personalities, caused many of them to become workaholics. As a result, they experienced some of the negative consequences associated with it including work-family conflict, health issues, and high stress levels.

If, you can relate to this, and after reading my first article, you recognize that you’re a workaholic, but you feel unsure about how to address it, here are some suggestions to gain more balance in your life.

1. Read the Research

Before you’ll be willing to experiment with any sort of change, you’ve got to be convinced that it’s a good idea. And, if you’re a workaholic, there’s probably a big part of you that believes that there are benefits to approaching your work the way that you do. Even though you’ve probably heard the negative effects of workaholism ad nauseam, you might believe that they’re all worth it, because you’re getting ahead. However, research shows that workaholism isn’t significantly relate to performance. So, while a strong work ethic is obviously key to performing at your best, if you’re a workaholic, there are diminishing returns for that excessive effort and focus on your job.  You might also worry that if you cut yourself some slack and take breaks, your work will suffer. Again, the research doesn’t support this. Once you’ve convinced yourself (or at least opened yourself up to the possibility) that making some lifestyle changes is worthwhile and won’t cause your work to suffer, try out the next few tips.

2. Set Boundaries

To help you to scale back, set boundaries for yourself – and write them down. Set a cut-off time for leaving the office or shutting down your laptop at home. Don’t leave your smartphone on your nightstand (or bring it to the dinner table); instead, put it on the other side of the room, so that you’ll be less tempted to check in on work while you’re in your bed or having dinner with your loved ones. Setting boundaries is simply a form of goal-setting, so for your goals to be most effective, consider them set in stone, so that you don’t allow for any slippage. To up the ante, select an accountability partner who can help you to keep your commitments to yourself.

3. Challenge Your Thinking

Workaholism isn’t just working a lot; there’s also a cognitive component to it. It’s frequently associated with perfectionism, as well as obsessive thoughts about work when you’re engaging in leisure time. To cut back, you’ll need to learn to challenge your unhelpful thoughts, by taking a step back to evaluate the accuracy of them. Learn to become aware of times you are distorting your thoughts or thinking in an “all or nothing” sort of way.

Here are some examples:

Unhelpful Thought: “If I stop working now, my work is going to be crappy.”

Challenging Thought: “Research suggests that all of this work isn’t necessarily going to result in better performance. Besides, this particular task doesn’t have to be perfect. There’s a huge gulf between “good enough” and crappy.”

Unhelpful Thought: “I feel guilty when I’m not busy all the time. To get ahead, I have to work around the clock.”

Challenging Thought: “Life isn’t just about work, and it’s certainly not about being miserable all the time. Besides, I can think of all sorts of people who are successful, and who also have balanced and happy personal lives.”

4. Re-engage in other activities you enjoy

Make time for favorite hobbies that you might have let fall by the wayside. And, as you engage in your hobbies, strive to do so mindfully, by aiming to be present in the moment. If you find that you struggle to stay in the moment, then you might benefit from developing a mindfulness practice to help you to deal with your distracting thoughts. By broadening your horizons outside of work, you will likely find that you are better able to replenish in off-hours, helping you to manage stress, and in turn making you more effective when you do put your focus on your job.

5. Consider changing companies

As noted in my previous article, the environment and company culture can play a role in exacerbating some aspects of workaholism. Work cultures vary significantly, and so if you are working somewhere that has unreasonable demands that make it difficult to have the sort of lifestyle that you desire, then you might consider making a change. In her book The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware found that two common regrets were “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” Sometimes you just have to take a stand for yourself and move on.

6. Seek professional help

Because many workaholics value self-reliance, you might feel like you should be able to manage your workaholism and move on from it on your own. But, the reality is, we all need help sometimes. So, if you’re struggling, get the assistance you need.

As the legendary Dolly Parton said, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” Moving on from workaholism can be challenging, but you’ll likely find that once you address it, you’ll be much more satisfied with your life.

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Patricia Thompson - Corporate Psychologist and Management Consultant | Silver Lining Psychology

About the Author

Dr. Patricia Thompson is a Corporate Psychologist and Management Consultant who is passionate about helping her clients flourish by making well-informed hiring decisions, cultivating talent, and developing a positive organizational culture. Read more...