Am I A Workaholic?

After my last post “Don’t Be Swindled by Relentlessness”, I was asked to expand my studies and thoughts on the closely-related topic of work addiction. I can completely relate to this request because many of us also suffer from what would be considered work addiction or workaholism. Perhaps it is not always a relentless culture, but one in which working all of the time is the standard. How much responsibility should we personally take for this standard? The question arises “Am I a workaholic?”

This is a question I have struggled with since opening my first business in 2010. It has plagued me as I grew from being a mid-20’s entrepreneur to a late-30’s entrepreneur/wife/mother of two (soon to be three). In between those two bookend statuses, I have started two businesses and led others in the C-suite. The questions have only grown more intense “Am I a workaholic? What does that even mean? Isn’t everyone? I can’t be the only one to insist on a way to manage my work and life? Would it be different if I were a man?”

In the years-long search for answers on these deep subject matters, I have found that many of my friends, partners, and colleagues are dealing with the same questions and struggles. I have read hundreds of articles on the issues. I have been vulnerable with male partners and colleagues and found that that can backfire. So, where do we go and how do we cope? I will do my best to provide context to the issue and offer solutions that I feel are part of a two-sided equation.

This equation includes the individual who must hold him/herself accountable to personal solutions or risk their lives falling apart at the seams, as well as the corporate culture designed by leaders who must hold themselves accountable for what they are building and maintaining through their own actions. Hopefully, in acknowledging the TRUTH about this subject on both sides of the equation, we can manage a proper dialogue in which people can stand on facts and not delusion. My hope is that studying the correct narrative will create awareness for those who are struggling in the same areas I have to find a healthier and more holistic relationship with work.

Let’s begin by diving into work addiction as it is related to the individual.

WORKAHOLISM & THE INDIVIDUAL

There are certainly global issues and many external environmental factors contributing to the increase in work addiction. Globalization, new technology, and blurred boundaries between work and private life are all contributing factors. As I have theorized in my equation, there is also a lot that has to do with the individual.

There is a personality type that caters more to work addiction — the perfectionist. Work addiction is closely connected to perfectionism and someone who is looking for value. These people are much more susceptible to an organization that fosters the feeling that you should always be “on”, that you should always be working, and always concentrating on the goals of the organization. Perfectionists will buy into these expectations much easier than others and try to exceed them.

Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.

Albert Einstein

I agree with Albert Einstein that we shouldn’t have our eyes focused on personal success but rather on how we can be of value to others. However, I would suggest that the underlying issue for those searching for success is a deep rooted need to be valuable to others.

People who seem to thrive on a nonstop workweek are truly addicted to a job well done as opposed to the work. The test comes down to the definition of success and the measure of value. If success were defined as the most balanced person at both work and home, to focus on working at your highest capacity within certain hours and then focus on relationships and wellbeing during other hours, these people would make that their #1 goal and work addiction wouldn’t be an issue. Ultimately, these people are chasing whatever equals success because it will give them a sense of value in others’ eyes and, therefore, their own. I know because I am a recovering “successaholic.” I was obsessed with the satisfaction of achievement. I certainly wasn’t addicted to long hours, only the reward those hours seemed to accomplish in the eyes of the organizations and dynamics in which I was operating.

As the equation (and the expression) indicates, it takes two to tango. A corporate culture that manipulates a high achiever is at equal, if not greater, fault for abusing someone’s deep desire to be valuable. I will get more into the leaders’ responsibilities later, but I feel it necessary to mention here so that the weight doesn’t lie on what is actually a good quality if surrounded by sincere leaders and/or partners who have integrity.

Work addiction can also be extremely confusing when it is in the service of humanity and creating “value” in the world — meaning a truly admirable mission or purpose. The tireless work loads that can accompany missions to improve the lives of others has no end to the sense of value it is providing the individual. It can also swallow them whole and lose all resulting value as the person drowns under the mission. These cultures are extremely high risk for work addiction, because it is very difficult to try to put parameters up when work fulfills purpose as defined by the individual and the world.

These cultures also cater to what would be considered “engaged workaholics” who work because of intrinsic motivators — they enjoy their work or they find meaning in their work. Non-engaged workaholics are motivated with extrinsic factors such as money or status. Intrinsic factors are more associated with persistence, effort and optimism in the midst of work, while extrinsic factors can bring anxiety which undermines persistence. Both examples of workaholism risk health and wellbeing, but extrinsic can have a slightly higher cost. Any culture that creates work addiction is one that needs balance for long term success, and a culture that is fighting for a cause should be even more motivated to focus on the health of the people spending their lives doing so.

Disclaimer: I was born in 1982, so I am technically a millennial. So do not feel slighted by my analysis of millennial characteristics.

Millennials have characteristics that make them far more susceptible to extrinsic work addiction. They are obsessed with their jobs, they socialize less, and many aren’t as interested in a spiritual life. The goals of millennials have shifted away from community, socialization, and civic duties and toward individualism. ( Source)

This sets millennials up to fill their lives by finding value through work. Granted, this is not connected to being of service to others as opposed to being successful themselves. This is when Einstein’s quote becomes very relevant as a truth about what to strive for — value to others over personal success.

It seems that spiritual interests and a deeper focus on relationships may come later in life because these are both important for eventual emotional wellbeing and happiness. This indicates to me that these will only increase as motivators for millennials as they mature in life. What is worrisome is the workaholism culture that has been brewing and needs to be addressed before it is too late for this generation to effectively lead. If they’re going to lead Gen Z, they will need to let go of the standards they espouse and continued to perpetuate. Millennials are sometimes referred to as the “me generation” while Gen Z is being termed the “true generation.” It will be interesting to see how the two collide in regards to work addiction expectations. ( Source)

Let’s be honest. It took more determination to be a work addict before there were computers at home or cell phones. The idea of someone’s colleague calling them on their home landline happened less than the incessant emailing and texting that happens today. There is NO separation between work and home today. Granted, there are many things that are possible today because of these technology advances. For one, we have the capability to work remotely. Can you imagine this coronavirus hitting in 1982?!?

Millennials are the first totally connected generation. They never experienced working without email and texts. They never left work and had the possibility to truly shut off. Even used vacation time shows a marked decrease with the rise of the internet.

Millennials came of working age after the burst of the dot-com bubble. Many graduated college and needed a job during the recession of 2008. There are also historically high levels of student debt which added to the necessity of having a job. It hasn’t been an easy decade for millennials to adjust to valuing work on the appropriate scale. Nor have these economic experiences helped to lessen the “me” focus in the drive for success.

Since all of this has hit millennials pretty hard in the battle against work addiction, it isn’t hard to understand why they want to feel needed and important in their work. Have any of these thoughts ever run through your mind when considering taking time off?

  • “No one else at my company can do the work while I’m away.”
  • “I want to show complete dedication to my company and job.”
  • “I don’t want others to think I am replaceable.”
  • “I feel guilty for using my paid time off.”

These are classic statements of work martyrdom. Each year, more than half of Americans leave vacation time on the table. In 2018, unused vacation time accumulated to 768 million days. Yes, that’s millions of days unused!

Workaholics do suffer health consequences. People who are addicted to work report more health complaints because they struggle to psychologically detach from work. Ongoing intensity often accompanies stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems, and offers no recovery from work. Workaholics often have chromic stress levels, which leads to ongoing wear and tear on the body. They are at risk of elevated blood pressure and cortisol levels. When their biological systems keep working at elevated levels, they have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even death.

Health consequences are present in workaholics with both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Although engaged workaholics (those who love their work) have lower physiological health risks than non-engaged workaholics, they still suffer from depressive feelings, sleep problems, various health complaints, and a higher need for recovery than non-workaholics. This shows that well-being is negatively influenced among workaholics, regardless of how much they love their work. ( Source)

  • Millennials are more likely to want to be seen as work martyrs than older workers; specifically, 48% of Millennials wanted their bosses to see them that way, while only 39% of Gen X did and 32% of Boomers did.
  • 35% of Millennials thought it was good to be seen as a work martyr by colleagues, while only 26% and 20% of X’s and Boomers agreed.
  • Millennials are also more likely to forfeit unused vacation days than other groups — 24% of Millennials, 19% of Gen Xers, and 17% of Boomers forfeited time off that they’d earned.
  • This study also found that sacrificing vacation time has no net benefit on careers.
  • Work martyrs are more likely to be stressed at home and at work, and less likely to be happy with their companies and careers.
  • They were less likely to receive bonuses — 75% of work martyrs reported receiving a bonus in the past three years, compared with 81% of overall respondents.
  • Previous research showed that people who take fewer vacation days are also less likely to get a raise.
  • Millennials are more likely (59%) to feel ashamed for taking or planning a vacation than workers 35 or older (41%).
  • Millennials are twice as likely to make fun of colleagues who took vacation — 42% of under-35 workers admitted to doing so.
  • Of the group of employees who admitted to making fun of vacation-takers, Millennials were also twice as likely to admit that they weren’t kidding — roughly four in 10 of them said they were at least “somewhat serious” in their vacation-shaming.

Do you wonder if you’re a workaholic or suffer from work addiction? The Bergen Work Addiction Scale was the first instrument of its kind to measure work addiction. It uses seven basic criteria to identify work addiction, where all items are scored on the following scale: (1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Always. The study shows that scoring “often” or “always” on at least four of the seven items may suggest that you are a workaholic.

Acknowledge

Just like the first step in most unhealthy habits, you must acknowledge your relationship to work is unhealthy — when your life feels out of control and work is undermining outside relationships and interests.

Redefine Success

Success shouldn’t be equivalent to getting ahead or anchored to your work, dedication, status, pay, or prestige. You must redefine success to be a more well-rounded sum including the quality of your relationships, your engagement in your community, your personal interests, and your well-being.

Refocus Attention & Time

Your time is your greatest asset, so use it wisely. Pay attention to who you are with when you are with them. Don’t multitask — it’s not effective and it’s rude to those around you. Set clear rules on when you can and cannot work and stick to those hours. When it is time to stop working, put your work away and focus on the fact that you know when you will pick it back up. If you have a boss who demands more than that, consider the cost and whether that is the kind of boss who truly cares about your wellbeing. Trust me, their motivation in demanding immediate text responses is NOT serving your holistic wellbeing — it’s serving their urgent outcomes, which shouldn’t be urgent after hours. They have a time management issue.

Try Digital Detoxes

Put your phone away and stop using it to fill time. Again, time is your greatest asset, and your phone won’t be there to hold you in the end, so relying on it for comfort is insane. When you’re not at work, your phone should not be glued to your hand. Give it a break and make intentional decisions on when you will check it or use it for social media.

Prioritize Health and Mindfulness

You must prioritize your health in order to be productive and effective at work and at home. Without proper sleep, nutrition and exercise your life is not sustainable, so all of the hours working is adding up to an even greater loss in the end. If it’s hard to focus on your health for yourself, consider it important to all of those who love and depend on you. Your life is not your own.

Another important piece of health is to practice mindfulness and being present in the current moment. Most of us run through our days on autopilot; we miss all of the blessings and details of life. By focusing our attention to be physically, emotionally and mentally active in the moment, we will be experiencing life as it should be. Here is a great article with tips to practice mindfulness.

Focus on Having a Well-rounded Life

Re-engage with life. Reconnect with friends and family and spend time focusing on those relationships with intention. Make them a priority in your life and choose them over work when it is important. Take up non-work activities that you enjoy or have always been interested in — reading, exercising, sports, cooking, crafts, or a new hobby. All of this can help you psychologically detach from work and build a life that exists outside of work. These activities will draw your desire and attention and make you want to set clear boundaries for work hours.

WORKAHOLISM & LEADERS OF CORPORATE CULTURES

Two-thirds of employees said they heard either mixed messages, negative messages, or nothing from their bosses about taking paid time off. They fill that silence with insecurities about their jobs. (source)

As a leader or a manager, it is critical that you focus on building a holistic work culture — one in which employees have a healthy relationship with their work and lead personally fulfilling lives. It is a bad trap to take advantage of an employee who is dealing with work addiction — even if he/she is extremely engaged in the work. In the long run, it will benefit the business and the individual much more if they are guided and encouraged to lead a holistic life in and outside of work. It is your responsibility to lead by example and actually live the way you expect your employees to live. This means, the healthy work relationship begins with YOU.

You must first create a healthy relationship with your business and work. It is absolutely possible (I would argue fundamental) to have a successful business while also practicing a holistic approach to overall wellness. This means relationships and health must come before work. People are the purpose for life, and this means the direct relationships that you have been blessed with — not just all of the people you believe your business impacts. Health must be a priority because it is physically, emotionally and mentally impossible to give your best work and highest capacity if you’re not in good health. That means diet, exercise, sleep, rest, outside stimulation, and all of these require a break from work.

Once leaders are living lives that are focused on wellbeing, it will permeate the work culture. It will inspire and be the evidence that that kind of lifestyle is what is expected of employees. Rather than an employee being the odd man out because they like to actually take a lunch or go for a walk in the middle of the day or (GASP) actually use their vacation time — the odd mad out should be the one who doesn’t make these things a priority. That will only be believed when leadership is doing it as well. By focusing on employees’ actual wellbeing, engagement, longevity, productivity and real happiness will ensue.

Looking at all of the data and facts about work addiction, I cannot help but suggest that a deeper understanding of value and prioritizing health and a social life are the missing ingredients for the individual. As for the corporate cultures, aren’t we still talking about individuals who design those cultures? So my plea is for leaders to also take heed of this information and be conscious and mindful to change any of their own work addiction habits. Only then can cultures begin to transform from the top down and bottom up.

My hope is that this topic becomes a major part of the focus we take into our social consciousness as we work to rebuild corporate cultures post coronavirus. This is a rare opportunity for both individual and corporate leaders to face these tough issues and work on a personal and communal level to create change.

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Alexis Maida

Alexis is an experienced executive with 15+ years of expertise in strategy, communications, branding, marketing and wellness.