It’s hardly a secret that most of us spend way too much time at work, despite more and more research telling us that as we clock more hours at work, our health ends up suffering in some pretty serious ways. In fact, it seems clearer than ever that spending more than eight hours at our desks each day (only to go home and check emails at all hours of the night) is awful for our overall mental and physical well-being, even though it’s an unavoidable reality for many workers these days.
But what happens when you actually become addicted to work? It’s true that being a workaholic garners a certain amount of praise or even envy — complaining about how busy you are is almost a badge of honor in a world where a work-life balance feels like an abstract concept touted by bloggers and talk show hosts.
It turns out there are some very clear signs that you might actually be addicted to your job, as one author and psychotherapist recently explored. In an article on Psychology Today, Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D. discusses what he calls “the best dressed problem of the twenty first century,” explaining how to know if you’re actually addicted to work, and how you can make it stop.
In his book Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, Robinson explains that work addicts aren’t much different than those dealing with substance abuse, saying, “If you’re a true workaholic, your relationship with work is the central connection of your life, as compelling as the connection that addicts experience with booze or cocaine.” Yikes.
And while that analogy might sound pretty extreme, it can be easy to see how our current societal expectations surrounding work can lead someone to a full-blown work addiction.
So how do you know if you are addicted to work, and what can you do to scale back and protect yourself from burnout? Robinson explains that being honest with yourself about your habits is the first step. He developed what he calls the Work Addiction Risk Test, a series of questions that can help determine whether or not you’re truly struggling to disconnect, making 9 to 5 seem like nothing more than a pipe dream. Some of them are pretty obvious, such as, “I’m still working after my coworkers have called it quits,” or, “It’s hard to relax and unplug when I’m not working — even on vacation.”
But some of the hallmark symptoms of work addiction are seriously sneaky, such as, “I feel guilty when I’m not working on something,” or “I stay busy with many irons in the fire.” Because being busy and juggling tons of tasks seems almost heroic, few of us realize how detrimental it actually is, and that unwinding — and truly disconnecting from the office — is so, so important.
Of course, there’s no denying that it can be hard to get off the hamster wheel, especially if your bosses and coworkers know they can rely on you to get the job done…even if you’re eating three meals a day slumped over your desk. And it can be even worse when you’re rewarded for your dedication to your job by way of raises, promotions, and plenty of praise heaped on you by your colleagues.
After all, when you’re killing it at work and being rewarded for it, why would you even dream of scaling back? But Robinson explains just how dangerous this is.
He says, “Work highs, reminiscent of alcoholic euphoria, eventually give way to work hangovers: withdrawal, depression, irritability, anxiety, and ultimately burnout.” And this is exactly how other things in your life can start to suffer, from your relationships with loved ones (who you likely spend less and less quality time with) to your ability to manage your life outside the office, including your overall well-being.
So if you find yourself in a situation where you’re taking on more and more at work, overloading yourself because you know you can handle it, working at all hours of the day and night, even when you’re supposed to be “off,” and having anxiety and stress long after you’ve clocked out for the day, there are things you can do to combat the problem head-on.
Robinson suggests slowing down in all areas of your life, not just at work. “Make a conscious effort to unplug and recharge your batteries…consider eating, walking, and driving slower and remember: the tortoise won the race.” Also remember that you’re only human, and you have needs that must be met. Making time to eat balanced meals (away from your desk, devices, and the TV!) and getting adequate sleep and exercise is not just a marketing gimmick created by the wellness industry — it’s crucial for all of us.
Practice working on one task at a time instead of multitasking.
As Robinson explains, “workers who focus on one task at a time are more efficient and productive.” Set boundaries for yourself at work by saying “no” if you’ve got too much on your plate, and being firm about not over-committing yourself.
Also, remember to be kind to yourself, especially when you feel guilt creeping in. “Instead of attacking yourself when you’re trying to rest, talk yourself off the ledge and shower yourself with compassion. Practice pep talks and treat yourself with the same nurturing support and loving-kindness you give to loved ones,” says Robinson.
And we can’t say it enough: Self-care is so important, in whatever way works best for you. If you’re not exactly a candle-lit bath or yoga kind of person, there’s nothing wrong with that. Find what you truly enjoy — maybe it’s reading a new book, listening to a podcast, or going for walks. Even just 15 or 20 minutes a day works, as long as you actually try to relax.
You should also make time for fun. Yes, really! If you’ve been neglecting your pals, go meet them for a drink or dinner. Reconnecting with your closest friends will make you remember why work shouldn’t be your only priority.
And since you probably can’t just quit your job altogether, you should certainly reframe the time you do spend there. As Robinson suggests, “Put time cushions between work tasks and appointments. Take time to breathe, eat a snack, or just look out the window. Get up, stretch, and move around. Be sure to set reasonable work hours and stick to them.”
Finally, if you’re truly struggling, seeking help from a licensed therapist or counselor is a great option to help you work through your worries. Figuring out how to separate yourself from your work will help you actually live the life you deserve to live. Even if you love your job, that’s something we can all benefit from.