Understanding Work Addiction

Addiction is the physical and/or emotional dependence on internal and external stimuli. Those addicted become enslaved by these stimuli. The most common and severe of these examples in our society involves drug and alcohol abuse, but a less-discussed form of addiction is that of work addiction. It’s easy to misinterpret the signs of work addiction (or workaholism), but when we dissect the symptoms and byproducts of work addiction, we notice many parallels to substance abuse addiction.

In a culture where hard work is praised and putting in overtime is often expected, it can be difficult to recognize work addiction. People with a work addiction will often justify their behavior by explaining why it is a good thing and can help them achieve success. They may simply appear committed to their job or the success of their projects. However, ambition and addiction are quite different.

Like with substance abuse addicts, work addiction is often catalyzed by a desire to ignore trauma or anxiety in our personal lives. And like other addictions, the addict often lacks awareness or interest in the negative effects of their addictions.

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Deterioration of healthy routines

Addiction leads us to prioritize our addiction over other things. While the result is the demise of our mental and physical health, one of the earliest signs of addiction is the deterioration of healthy routines. Things like diet, hygiene, sleep, exercise, or time management, require a certain level of structure and discipline. Said discipline is hard to exercise or maintain if our priorities are consumed by our addiction to work (for example). While prioritizing work over these routines may give us more productivity in the short term, the deterioration of our mental and physical health will ultimately hurt our productivity more than the extra hours.

This doesn’t mean that powering through a long week or month is bad if work calls for it. However, if prolonged and unprovoked stretches of long hours persist unnecessarily, then that is a sign of possible ‘workaholism’. Prioritization, discipline, and balance are required to keep our bodies and mind running well so we can perform at work and live fulfilling lives.

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Deterioration of personal relationships

Our addictions (big and small) ultimately affect those closest to us. Whether it’s drug addiction or work addiction, the effects of our problems will be felt hardest by those who care most. Inevitably we prioritize our addictions over our personal relationships. In the short term this might free up more time for us to work, but in the long run, we find ourselves isolated and without purpose outside of our work.

We’ve written extensively about the importance of having a sense of belonging in our lives. Meaningful relationships are vital to our long-term happiness. They also are huge influences on our performance at work as well. Workaholism will slowly chip away at the important human connections in our lives if we let it. It starts with us having less time for people (or simply not making the time). Eventually, we might even lie about our availability (why we can’t make time for others). Lastly, our communication dwindles and disappears.

Research indicates that a low self-esteem and lacking empathy are indicative of a problem. They signal the connection between poor habits and mental health effects that harm our connection with others.

What does this mean for professionals struggling with work addiction?

As high-achieving professionals, we rely on balance and mindfulness to survive the stresses of our lives. This means nurturing our bodies and minds over a long period of time. This entails a strong personal foundation consisting of structure, routines, and strong connections with others.

Neglecting this balance not only risks harming our personal lives, but it also threatens the very thing we thought we were serving throughout our work addition: our job performance. The risk of burnout and alienation of others far outweighs the shallow feeling of accomplishment by forcing ourselves through an 80-hour week even if we don’t need to.

This ecosystem of mindfulness and balance requires deep and intentional thought combined with consistent execution. And we need to prioritize surrounding ourselves with knowledge and tools to help us maintain a mindful balance to our lives.

How to Begin Treating Work Addiction

Now that we have an understanding of work addiction, what are some things we can do to shift our focus and restructure our daily lives? How do these things help us naturally change our day-to-day while also helping us perform at our highest level? Here are two areas to focus on.

Downsize Your Day-to-Day

A common symptom of ‘workaholism’ is multi-tasking. It’s a symptom of taking on too much and frantically scrambling to keep up at all costs. As we double down on this hamster wheel, we push other components in our life to the side. Maybe it’s a dinner with your family, a trip with your friends, or your simple ability to keep up with emails from your boss, colleagues, or clients. In this situation, you have likely cannibalized your approach to work. Your lack of well-roundedness in daily life impacts your ability to stay organized, be creative, and live at your highest level.

That is why multi-tasking is the perfect symptom of workaholism. You probably know that research shows multi-tasking is wildly inefficient. However more surprisingly, most people know that and do it anyways. According to some studies, this is partly because we trick ourselves into thinking we are being more productive even if we aren’t. If that doesn’t describe a toxic and addictive cycle, then I don’t know what does.

We can begin to treat our work addiction starting with shifting our multi-tasking to single-tasking. This helps remove us from the vicious cycle of multitasking. More importantly, though, single-tasking forces us to compartmentalize our choices and actions in our work and lives.

In our personal lives, this means being more present when connecting with friends and family. In our professional lives, this means better time management, better professional collaboration, and better quality and commitment to each individual task we do.

Give Up Some Control

Going “above and beyond” hits a threshold that traverses the grey area between drive and work addiction. Sometimes it means pushing deadlines or managing client expectations instead of working past 4 am every night. Other times it means delegating to your team for your child’s graduation.

It’s naïve to assume we can control our fate at work with simply more hours of work. This short-sighted and hard-nosed approach to work compounds bad situations and squanders positive opportunities. We neglect the practical situations we face and charge forward without planning the right solutions.

A significant ingredient of any addiction is an obsession with trying to achieve total control. For alcoholics, this entails control over physical sensation while at work its an obsession over controlling our anxieties around work.

Our inability to be present in our work and personal lives costs us our job performance and our personal relationships. In this situation, it likely means that you need to re-balance your life. Don’t have time in life for family and friends? Well, make some! If not for them at the very least, do it for the sake of your own productivity!

Your ability to delegate and outsource ultimately is a greater asset to yourself and those around you. Even better, it frees you up to nurture more balance in your daily life.

Defeating Work Addiction Comes Down to Behavior

Overcoming addiction is a practice of deep and targeted behavior change. This entails daily reflection and management of how we navigate our daily lives. Overcoming powerful addictions like work addiction doesn’t happen overnight. We must plan, monitor, and reflect on our habits. Our changed behavior is the end result of this hard work. What techniques help you stay balanced and focused? How do you preserve a sustainable and fulfilling life while still producing at your highest level? These are all solutions we must continue to pursue.