Workaholism is widely considered to be a 21st-century problem, but it’s been pervasive for a much longer time. In fact, the term ‘workaholic’ first appeared in 1971. Some people wear the term ‘workaholic’ as a badge of honor. This is when things get dangerous, since working hard is not necessarily the same thing as being addicted to work.
Like any addiction, workaholism can have physical side-effects, sleep deprivation being key among them. In this piece, we break down what it means to be a workaholic, the negative effects associated with it, and ways to cope.
Psychologist Wayne Oates, who first coined the term “workaholic” in the early 70s, described it as the “compulsion or uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”
In the modern world, being a workaholic is sometimes regarded with a positive connotation. In fact, employees who can’t tear themselves away from work are praised as hard workers who are simply engaged with their jobs. But more often than not, that’s far from the case.
By definition, workaholics feel a compulsion to work, even if that means sacrificing their health, personal relationships, and social lives. When they’re not working, they feel guilty, prompting them to find ways to occupy themselves with work. Workaholism is closely linked to high levels of stress, burnout, psychosomatic symptoms, and increased risk of heart disease.
Though it’s not necessarily a diagnosable disorder, workaholism is a serious issue because it can have a profound impact on the person who’s suffering from it. Much like other forms of addiction, workaholics chase the high of workplace praise and job-related rewards.
Everything else in their life might start to take a backseat to their work, including their relationships, personal interests, and health. Unlike those who are required to juggle multiple responsibilities, workaholics are so fixated with work that they create responsibilities for themselves.
According to Dr. Malissa Clark, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, there are four main causes of overwork. These can be placed into four main categories:
A common explanation for people who tend to have workaholic tendencies is that they might be attempting to relieve suppressed struggles, whether this be a need for external approval or past trauma, through their work.
Certain toxic work environments can also enable workaholic tendencies, especially when unhealthy patterns are recognized as hard work, or appreciated often. In one study run by Clark and her colleagues, results revealed workaholism was related to higher feelings of guilt, anxiety, anger, and even disappointment, at both work and home. High work engagement, on the other hand, had a more positive impact on both work and home lives of an individual, prompting attentiveness.
Most research on workaholism suggests that it can have deeply negative effects on a person’s well-being. One study conducted in 2014 published by the Southern Management Association revealed workaholics usually experienced worse mental and physical health, and had lower job, family, and work life balance satisfaction as well.
In another study published around 2016, researchers found a link between those addicted to work with higher levels of systolic blood pressure. This further proves what we already know to be true - that being a workaholic can have real physical repercussions on the body.
Other physical side-effects of workaholism include headaches, fatigue, indigestion, sleep deprivation, and even difficulty concentrating. All of these, ironically, can actually work to decrease your performance at work, and might extend the amount of time it takes for you to complete even basic tasks.
Psychotherapist Amy Morin discusses the difference between hard work and workaholism, and breaks down some of the most common symptoms of workaholics.
Here are five common traits to help you tell whether you might be struggling with workaholism:
If you struggle to take time off without your mind drifting back to work, that’s a troubling sign you might be addicted to work.
Do you pull in more late-night shifts than anyone else in the office? Working consistently late might be a sign you have an issue with overworking yourself.
If your managers have tried to intervene in the number of hours you put into your work day, and you’re still unable to do so, it’s likely you have an issue.
Is it difficult to spend time with loved ones without thinking back to what’s happening in the office? This is a common symptom in most workaholics.
The same applies for your hobbies or favourite leisure activities - if they’ve stopped bringing you joy because of your fixation with work, it’s time to seek guidance.
If you’re a reformed workaholic, and you’re trying to have a healthier relationship with your work life, it’s important to start by acknowledging the importance of sufficient rest. A good night’s sleep can help balance your mood, keep you focused and release energy steadily throughout the day, and strengthen your athletic performance.
So how do you develop sleep hygiene that accounts for your workaholic tendencies?
Here are a couple of sleep tips that can help you achieve better sleep, and learn how to rest without getting overwhelmed by feelings of guilt:
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, it’s important you invest in a mattress that you actually look forward to tucking yourself into every night. To find the most comfortable mattress for your sleep, think about where you tend to have the most trouble. If for instance, you’re a stuffy sleeper, a cooling mattress can help encourage better rest.
When you’re a workaholic, chances are being hunched over a screen isn’t doing much good for your back. If this is the case, you’ll want a mattress focused on pressure relief, so that you’re recovering well through the night.
Refreshing your work inbox right before you go to bed is never a good idea. Moreover, the blue light that emits from your screen can actually keep your brain alert, stifling the production of melatonin. This is seriously disruptive to your sleep cycle.
For a good night’s sleep, as well as more discipline with your work-home boundaries, it’s best to keep anything that reminds you of the office as far away from your bedroom as possible. This encourages you to treat your bedroom as a place of rest.
Your body has an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is what tells your brain when it’s time to start producing melatonin, and it’s what keeps you alert throughout the day. If you struggle with going to sleep at the same time each night (because work is keeping you up), then your internal clock gets confused, and causes disruptions in your sleep cycle.
Try and stick to the same bed-time each night in order to give your body a sense of routine. This will help you prioritize your sleep, and keep you more focused through the week to work better.
Finally, for better sleep through the night, it’s important you set your goals for the day first thing in the morning. If you’re a workaholic, chances are you like to add to your task list constantly. Setting an intention for the day and trying to stick to it will allow you to arrive at a natural end to your day.
Setting stricter boundaries for yourself when it comes to work is especially important when you know you have an unhealthy relationship with it. Remember to prioritize getting important things done, and then leaving yourself a part of the day to decompress properly.
Whether it’s by doing some research and buying yourself the most comfortable bed you can for a good night’s sleep, or simply setting firm boundaries with yourself, kicking your workaholic habits can take some work.
Our culture teaches us to value working hard, which is what makes it hard to recognize when that hustle crosses over to something unhealthy. If you’re still not sure you struggle with workaholism, ask yourself this simple question - "am I more fulfilled or stressed by my work?"
If the answer is the latter, it’s time to take a step back, and spend some time learning how to rest again. Your well-being and yes, even your work, will thank you for it.