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"You're not going to go far unless you're a workaholic."   Sloan Wilson, author

As a culture, we've bought into the myth. But all work and no play... makes Jack an unhealthy, guilt-ridden, lonely shell of his former self. We can dress up workaholism any way we want: It's commitment, dedication, drive, ambition. It's a necessary investment in our futures. The reality is, like any addiction, workaholism eats away at our bodies, minds, and spirits. And like any addiction, recovery starts by acknowledging there's a problem.

A Problem in Disguise

Psychologist Bryan Robinson once said that work addiction is the "best-dressed mental health problem." It's one addiction that society tends to value because, from the outside, it masquerades as hard work and high performance.

As Jullien Gordon, founding partner of consultancy firm New Higher and "recovering workaholic," explains, "[T]he big difference is how the individual feels on the inside about who they are in relationship to their work." A high-performer works hard in "healthy sustainable ways and feels happy and inspired," while a workaholic "works hard in unhealthy, unsustainable ways and feels unhappy and burned out."

Dr. Brad Klontz concurs: "Workaholics use work to cope with emotional discomfort and feelings of inadequacy. They get adrenaline highs from work binges and then crash from exhaustion, resulting in periods of irritability, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. To cope with these feelings, workaholics then begin another cycle of excessive devotion to work."

Workaholism is not about passion or commitment; it's about the compulsion to work and the nagging feelings of guilt that come when you are not. The cruel irony is that prioritizing work above all else - above family, friends, community, and leisure - negatively impacts performance.

Suffering from Workaholism

Because there is no single standard definition of a "workaholic," estimates of its prevalence vary. By some estimates, as much as 30 percent of the population suffers. And "suffers" is completely accurate. The addiction's nasty side effects include sleep disorders, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, weight gain, crushing fatigue, and forgetfulness. Recurrent adrenaline dumps decrease the body's ability to remove cholesterol and increases plaque deposits in arteries.

Workaholism strains the heart, physically and metaphorically. Relationships suffer; spouses of workaholics report greater levels of dissatisfaction in their marriages, divorce rates soar, and children are more likely to develop depression.
If you are compelled - pushed not pulled - to work; if you feel anxious when you cannot work; if you prioritize work over family, leisure, exercise, and hobbies; if you experience health difficulties because of your addiction - it's time to move towards recovery.

Overcoming Overwork

There is a reason that many people use the vocabulary of addiction when talking about workaholism. It can become all-consuming, and it takes a concerted effort to "kick the habit." Steps you can take include:

  1. Acknowledge the problem. Assess yourself and your work habits honestly. Is it passion that's driving you to work harder and longer? Or is fear? Loneliness? Guilt? Are there underlying issues with which you need to contend?
  2. Give up guilt. Guilt is a major workaholism culprit. Author, speaker, coach and recovering workaholic Caroline Dowd-Higgins says, "I have finally learned that guilt is a useless emotion, so I have given it up for good. I thought I would be tempted to feel guilty about my new non-workaholic mindset, but I am not giving guilt any airtime." Easier said than done for many folks, but reminding yourself that you do not need to feel guilty for balancing work and life is helpful.
  3. Set healthy priorities. Priorities change over the course of our lives. At some points, work may be the biggest piece of the pie as we establish our careers or build a business. Then, maybe our children take over as the focus as they grow. What are your priorities now? The Life Wheel is an easy-to-use tool that can help you narrow in on them so you can devote your time, energy, and resources to the most critical.
  4. Establish boundaries. Learn to use "no" wisely. No, I can't take another project right now. No, I am not able to attend that event. And say "no" to yourself: No, I don't need to work 14 hours a day. No, I don't need to triple-check that email or obsess over a small detail. You can't say "no" all the time, of course, but you can integrate it judiciously into your vocabulary in order to free yourself to pursue other priorities.
  5. Take time off. This is going to be a hard one. Chances are you have some unused vacation days. Take a few (or more) and limit or restrict your availability. If you cannot completely cut the cord, schedule short amounts of time each day to go through messages or have a brief check-in with the office. Leisure is hard work when you're a workaholic.

When you feel guilty about not working - and you will - remind yourself that breaks and vacations boost cognitive ability, increase productivity, and will only enhance your performance at work. Enjoy yourself. That's an order!!

Bonus Tip: Eat something. A Kansas State University study found that - surprise! - workaholics neglect their health. "We found workaholics...were more likely to have reduced physical well-being, measured by skipped meals." So eat, somewhere with a table and real plates. Do nothing other than consume healthy food, except possibly talk to your family or friends.

Workaholism isn't a badge of honor; it's an addiction that can rob you of happiness, satisfaction, and ultimately, your health and even your family. Take steps to overcome this challenge because, contrary to conventional "wisdom," you're not going to go far if you're a workaholic.


Larry Hart

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