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How to Manage Workaholism

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Sunday, November 11th, 2018
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woman yawning while working

It goes by many names: the hustle, the grind, going all in. Entrepreneurs wear their long work hours, dark under-eye circles and stress-induced weight fluctuations like badges of honor. We look up to these people, who sacrifice such things as weekends and a good night’s rest, as the dedicated few willing to do what it takes to achieve greatness. They seem almost superhuman, eternally ready to be the first one in and last one out. But many times, it’s personal relationships, self-care and play—all proven as necessary parts of a healthy, balanced life—that come as a price for these achievements.

What might look like an admirable work ethic can go by another name: workaholism. And although the research hasn’t been around that long, most experts agree that between 10 and 25 percent of U.S. adults qualify.

A Shaky Definition

Workaholism is not listed as a mental illness in the DSM-5. It’s difficult to define and even tougher to diagnose. The term itself wasn’t coined until the late 1960s by Wayne Oates, a psychologist and self-diagnosed workaholic. Workaholism, by Oates’ definition, is “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”

Defining a workaholic versus someone with an incredible work ethic—say, a dedicated entrepreneur trying to launch her first business—isn’t easy. Most experts agree that it has to do with your mindset toward work. An entrepreneur must often clock long hours in the early stages of her business, but if she’s able to detach and apply the same dedication to relaxation time, she’s likely not experiencing the symptoms of long-term workaholism. Conversely, the entrepreneur who clocks long hours and still feels guilty about not accomplishing more, who obsessively checks work emails and often discusses work in casual conversation, might need to take a second glance.

An entrepreneur must often clock long hours in the early stages of her business, but if she’s able to detach and apply the same dedication to relaxation time, she’s likely not experiencing the symptoms of long-term workaholism.

The Consequences

Whatever the definition, the results of an unhealthy work obsession has some pretty serious long-term consequences. Poor sleep, digestive issues and memory issues, increased excessive drinking and chances of type 2 diabetes are all commonly cited side effects. Workaholism often manifests in those who struggle to find self-fulfillment, and rest their ego on a shaky foundation of social and peer approval. Struggling to delegate as leaders, they often come to believe that they are not only the best ones for the task, but the only ones.

Although the work-obsessed might seem like the most productive of a bunch, a growing body of research also shows that placing prolonged levels of strain on the brain and body lead to diminished levels of productivity over time. Those working around and under the overachiever might feel incompetent, and eventually resentful, leading to an unhealthy and even toxic work environment. The workaholic becomes a victim of his own making, the subject of both admiration and sympathy.

Managing Workaholism

If you struggle to welcome and capitalize on opportunities to recharge; if you dream about work while on vacation, and spend countless sleepless nights obsessing over minor work-related issues, you might need to make a self-assessment and consider some serious changes.

1. Do a self-checkup. Scan your brain and body for signs of exhaustion and deprivation. If you’re having trouble, reach out to a trusted friend or relative—they might be better equipped to make an unbiased assessment.

2. Talk to your partner. Workaholism doubles the risk of divorce. If the two of you observe a problem, sit down with your loved one to address any unmet needs. Map out what a healthy work/life balance looks like to him or her, and compare it with yours.

3. Log those times when you’re obsessively thinking about work. Keep track especially during scheduled times of relaxation. Consider seeking professional help to address any underlying issues that could be contributing to your impulsive work habits. Also consider joining an established support group, such as Workaholics Anonymous.

4. Put away your phone and laptop while at home. If your type of work doesn’t allow long periods of disconnection, set aside times that you’re not to be disturbed. If need be, enlist a co-worker or employee to field calls and emails during those times.

5. Write down your moments of non-working gratitude. For example, when you’re able to attend your child’s school play or spend a weekend at the lake with friends.

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