For some of us, work is an incredibly fulfilling part of our lives. Maybe even to the point where the connection we feel with our job might tip the scales of work-life balance every so often — we might work through a lunch break to hit a deadline or check our professional email on our personal phones to feel on top of our responsibilities. While fixating on work may temporarily help us feel accomplished, placing too much emphasis on this one life component may eventually lead to workaholism.
By now, most of us know that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is a key component to our overall well-being. But that’s almost always easier said than done, particularly in a world where work is so often interwoven with self-worth and how we measure success.
Regardless, if we’ve come to a point where we’re constantly unable to disconnect from our jobs, the “dedication” or “hustle” we’ve deemed as admirable qualities of a modern worker are more likely the troubling habits of a workaholic. In fact, nearly half of Americans now identify as workaholics. So, how can we mindfully address this type of behavior? Let’s explore how we might establish new, healthy boundaries with work and how we might prevent the negative physical and mental health consequences.
Workaholism isn’t the same as working hard
There are 7 key symptoms and characteristics of workaholics
Try 16 meditations that can help with job stress
Being a workaholic and working hard isn’t always the same thing. The term, first coined in 1971 by psychologist Wayne E. Oates in his book Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction, describes a person who prioritizes work in such a way that it dominates all areas of their life. Occasionally working late to hit an important deadline doesn’t necessarily make someone a workaholic, but consistently choosing to work during days and times off might be a sign to examine if work-life balance is off kilter.
In a landmark study by one of the most notable workaholism researchers, Malissa A. Clark, Ph.D., she notes that it can be helpful to make the distinction this way: those who are engaged at work in a healthy way are typically fueled by their passion for their job. On the other hand, the behavior of workaholics is more likely to be motivated by negative factors like guilt and compulsion.
While workaholism is not currently recognized as a formal diagnosis or addiction, Clark established 3 key behaviors that many psychologists now believe most workaholics possess:
While identifying this behavior can be relatively straightforward, understanding where it stems from is a bit more difficult. Clark notes that certain workaholics may use work as a coping mechanism when dealing with a personal crisis or underlying trauma. Sometimes, self-worth can also get wrapped up in professional accomplishments, fueling the idea that working harder will ultimately make us more successful and worthy.
One important distinction Clark notes in her work is that workaholics “do not engage in excessive work due to external factors such as financial problems or pressure by their organization or supervisor.” Instead, she says their excessive involvement in work is not required of them and isn’t influenced by pressures from management or the company overall.
Even with the key characteristics listed above, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between someone who’s a workaholic and someone who’s passionate about their job. To create further clarification, a group of researchers created the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, which includes a set of 7 key symptoms and characteristics that help to assess the likelihood that someone is a workaholic:
If you answer “often” or “always” to at least 4 of these 7 statements, that’s an indication you may be a workaholic.
Harboring a strong devotion to a job is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, feeling inspired and fulfilled by an occupation can bring a lot of contentment and happiness into a person’s life overall. However, prioritizing work in the way that workaholics do can come with many downsides.
One of the biggest risks of workaholism is a heightened likelihood to experience burnout. This feeling of being mentally, emotionally, and sometimes even physically exhausted by work is often difficult to recover from and may ultimately cause us to feel disengaged or neglectful of our professional duties.
The heightened stress that tends to go hand-in-hand with being a workaholic can also spark a wide range of mental and physiological issues, such as restless sleep, increased depressive feelings, anxiety, and stomach-related troubles, to name a few.
Of course, another consequence of workaholism is the toll it can take on family and those closest to us/ Researchers found that workaholics experience more work-family conflict and poor functioning outside of work compared to people who are not workaholics. Building healthy and rewarding personal relationships takes time, and unfortunately, if we spend almost all of our waking hours working, we won’t be left with many opportunities to nurture and strengthen those important bonds.
When we’re ready to begin facing workaholic behaviors, the most important first step we can take is to reset and restructure our thought patterns. Mindfulness can help.
In one 2017 study that investigated the effectiveness of using mindfulness to treat workaholism, researchers found that after 8 weeks of meditation training, workaholics experienced a significant decrease in psychological distress, work duration, and work engagement as well as an increase in job satisfaction.
Perhaps most notably, it was discovered that even though these former workaholics began working less, their productivity did not decline. This backs up Clark’s research which found that workaholic behaviors don’t always mean we ultimately get more done.
A regular meditation practice can heighten awareness which, in turn, will allow us to step back and observe how we’re working, and if any anxious or obsessive thoughts are feeding our work ethic.
Looking for meditations to address the dangers of workaholism? The Headspace app offers a Managing Work Stress collection where subscribers can access exercises designed to make work happier, from coping with everyday anxious feelings to finding focus, including:
If long hours at work have turned into a habit of always putting our job duties first, mindfulness may be the tool that finally helps us balance the scales between professional and personal time in a way that feels sustainable. One thing mindfulness teaches us is the importance of having spaciousness of mind; the more we cultivate this, the more we cultivate productivity and clarity. With practice, we’ll likely begin to notice that it’s actually our time away from the office that fuels more productive and fulfilling days once we return.