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Burnout Or Satisfaction: What It Is Like To Be A Workaholic?

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Photo by: Christian Erfurt/Unsplash

Do you work excessive hours way beyond the workplace required time? Do you feel like you can’t live without your work? Do you think about your work, anytime, everywhere, when you’re at a restaurant or at the gym? Then, you might consider yourself a workaholic. But what does this mean?

Workaholism is a term commonly used today, most of the time with different meanings, but it for sure goes way beyond simply loving or liking your job: it means living for it, somehow being addicted to it, so there is a clear difference – to not be confused with – between workaholism and work engagement for long hours.

Workaholism is in fact characterised by constant thinking of your work and a necessity to keep working excessive hours; it’s also often characterised by a lack of work enjoyment, although it doesn’t apply to everyone.

Wayne Oates, Minister and Psychologist coined the term ‘workaholism’ in 1971 for the first time in his book Confession of a Workaholic, describing it as “The compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly”.

Through time, debates and disagreements pushed research studies to give different definitions of addiction: it has been considered an addiction to work, a pathology, a behaviour pattern that persists across multiple organisational settings, and a syndrome comprised of high drive, high work involvement, and low work enjoyment. 

On the other hand, other studies considered workaholism a great behavioural source to achieve success in your career in many cases.

In an effort to find the right, comprehensive and science-based definition for workaholism, more recent studies identified key commonalities across these definitions, which are the following:

– Feeling compelled to work because of internal pressures.

– Having persistent thoughts about work when not working.

– Working beyond what is reasonably expected of the worker despite the potential for negative consequences.

Briefly, science was able to show that workaholism really affects your mental health, and it does have consequences.

In a science brief, Psychology Professor and Director of Work and Family Experience Research Lab at the University of Georgia, Malissa A. Clark summarised scientific bases that recognise and explore workaholism addiction and its consequences.

Professor of Gambling Studies, Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University Mark Griffiths examined workaholism from a psychological and scientific perspective, analysing the common factors with other behavioural addictions.

Griffiths pointed out six core components of workaholism:

Salience – work becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings), and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually working they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e. a total preoccupation with work).

Mood modification – the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of working. It can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e. they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquillising feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).

Tolerance – increasing amounts of work are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in work, they gradually build up the amount of time they spend working every day.

Withdrawal symptoms – the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g. the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occurs when the person is unable to work because they are ill, on holiday, etc.

Conflict – between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), with other activities (social life, hobbies, and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intrapsychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time working.

Relapse – repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive work to recurring, and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive working to be quickly restored after periods of control.

So, how can you prevent workaholism from taking care of your mental health?

Ultimately, the challenge for anyone is to identify a compulsive work mentality and prevent its consequences. Focusing on one’s engagement and ability to “switch off” will go a long way in helping employees feel happy at work and outside of it.

Professors Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P.Rothbard explored the risks, motives and tips on how to avoid negative effects of workaholism in an article for Harvard Business Review, explaining: “Ultimately, the challenge for anyone is to identify a compulsive work mentality and prevent its consequences. Focusing on one’s engagement and ability to ‘switch off’ will go a long way in helping employees feel happy at work and outside of it.”

Mental Health Magazine analysed workaholism, addiction, and engagement to work in different behavioural aspects through three case studies.

Marian Nicholson, Herpes Viruses Association & Shingles Support Society Director, told us she started her job in 1995 and it crept up once she took the ‘boss’ role.

A synopsis of what her work means to her?

“Nothing can replace work. If I didn’t work I’d have not meaning to my life.”

She added: “Yes, I am addicted as I prefer being at work to doing other things. My work is to support people with facial and genital herpes (cold sores on the face or genitals) and with shingles. This involves a very wide range of activities – I am the main staff member. This can be writing for the website and the quarterly magazine – inspiring articles, help your health articles, medical research updates.”

“We update all our leaflets every three years to ensure our information is current. Or, if I am feeling uninspired, I can do the more mundane tasks such as accounts or logging the helpline call topics/duration for our annual report, or perhaps just the photocopying as we send out around twenty envelopes a day containing relevant leaflets from our range of about 25.”

Nicholson explained that during her work time is common to be interrupted by helpline phone calls and emails from people needing help on how to cope with the viruses, physically and psychologically.

“Being able to get a crying call to laugh on the same call is great!” she said. She mentioned that one time at Christmas, she had an invitation to join her family in Chicago but didn’t go, even though she could afford it, as “That would mean not getting the 1st January issue of the magazine out on time and disappointing the 1200 members,” said remarking her driven commitment to her job.

Talking about her health, Nicholson admitted: “I try to get more exercise but tend to stay late at work instead of going to the yoga or pilates classes I know I should really be doing.”

She stated that she personally never suffered from being a workaholic, as it “Replaces having to do anything else.”

“I suppose if I had a partner or children who were being neglected by my work-addiction then it would be a bad thing, but I don’t so it gives my life context. Clearly, I lack self-motivation without external support: the appreciation I get from work validates my life. It makes me feel my life is valuable.”

When it comes to her social life, Nicholson claimed that: “Work is ‘the reason that I don’t have a lot of friends since I am not available to sit around wasting time with them.”

She noted that her work wasn’t subject to many changes “Apart from the fact that other people’s lives have changed. I decided my work was front line health work and have continued all through the year.”

Picture by: Julie Sweet.

Julie Sweet, Clinical Psychotherapist and Counsellor at Seaway Counselling did not define herself as addicted to work, although she is “Extremely committed and deeply passionate about the work I’m privileged enough to do, yet I’m not a workaholic.”

In fact, she clarified that an unhealthy relationship with work is something she focuses on not embodying.

Sweet told us about her work: “I’m a psychotherapist and have my private practice in the eastern suburbs of Sydney at Bondi Junction. I try to approach my job with a balanced and growth mindset, being trauma-informed and client-focused.”

“Seeing a psychotherapist for therapeutic intervention can be a very useful strategy for health and wellness. One of the goals of therapy is to help the client manage to function with mental health issues and support overcoming the associated impacts.”

The other side of the coin is that Sweet has a past as a workaholic. “I was attempting to be everything to everyone, more so I wore almost every hat from customer service to accountant. I’m not ashamed to say I failed and as bizarre as this may sound, I’m profoundly grateful I did fail.”

“That experience of running myself into the ground, over-functioning, prioritising work before anything and anyone else, never clocking off, having poor professional boundaries such as working into weekends and evenings (autonomously) informed how I perform today.”

The psychotherapist explained to us how she radically changed her approach to work engagement: “I’m now doing what I’ve always longed to do and secondly, I operate collaboratively. I surround myself with people who know much more than I do, who specialise in their industries, who mentor me, and who I can learn from. I may be the sole clinician in my private practice, however, I’m collectively supported by a team of people. “

The 45-year-old psychotherapist also highlighted the relevance of interconnectedness: “People and relationships surpass business in my opinion. That’s not saying work is irrelevant by any means, though the connection is the tie that binds us.

Being vulnerable, building intimate relationships, personally and professionally is richer and more enhancing than a job.”

“Workaholism is thought to be an escape, a means to avoid. It could be wanting to avoid relationship matters, mental health issues, intimacy, self, financial stressors, loneliness, and other hidden areas of one’s life,” Sweet clarified.

“Trauma responses are known as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (people-pleasing). Through self-awareness, insight, acknowledgement, and ownership, workaholic patterns can be identified and worked through. A pathway to solutions can then present.”

She remarked that appreciation is so far what she got from the past year through the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I have a greater appreciation and sense of humility since the pandemic. My admiration for the human spirit has increased and so has the understanding around the endurance many have to sustain such traumatic and unsettling times. The pandemic has destabilised some and naturally, their history of trauma or fear of uncertainty has surfaced, compounding environmental and social factors.”

Angela Karanja, Parenting Teenagers Expert and Adolescent Psychologist at Raising Remarkable Teenager, works helping parents of teens raise highly effective teenagers.

Karanja said she literally is always into her work, even when she is not physically working, she always thinks about how to add value to the next parent of a teen and their teens. Somehow, she carries her work wherever she goes.

“I am a parenting teenagers’ expert and adolescent psychologist. So, you can imagine I am constantly researching and finding what works. I am the kind of person that wants to provide solutions, solutions as an educator. I have to find layman ways of communicating what works so that parents can take actionable steps that will give them transformation. I have to find ways that communicate the message, the solution in a stickable way. To do this, I have to blend science and art.”

“You have to break down that blooming science into a language that any regular parent will understand, a language that feeds the heart. Because unless these parents of teens feel me and are inspired, they can not take action. And without taking action, transformation can never happen. And my interest is that parents of teens get the results they want; that

their teens will trust them, open up and listen to them too.”

Karanja explained that she experienced a change in approaching her work since the Covid pandemic started: “Being stuck at home and not physically going to meet clients, meant I had more time to create more content.”

“I didn’t realise I caught the writing and content creation bug, and once I start it’s like I can’t stop, it’s like a force is pulling me to write more, more, more. I don’t want to stop. I don’t want

to be distracted; in fact, I have on occasions got irritable when distracted.”

“Before I know it, I see rooms getting dark as families switch off and disappear to sleep one at a time. I get quick kisses on my head which I hardly notice, for I am just not present for them. It’s terrible as I write this and discover how deserting I have been, especially my partner.”

Karanja pointed out what it feels like to reach a peak in your workaholism: “You can’t work like this and not have a breakdown. I know I have had days where I had headaches due to dehydration only to realise ‘Gosh, I haven’t eaten all day. On several occasions, I woke up with an idea at 4 pm in the morning and worked through to 4 pm in the afternoon.”

“Thankfully for me, I have extremely high mental resilience and can take a lot. Also, I am fortunate that when I decide to stop, I am able to shut down and sleep and actually have deep sleep which I guess compensates for the long hours. But I am aware I can’t continue like this indefinitely. Even the strongest person has a breaking point.”

The adolescent psychologist claimed that the pandemic completely revolutionised her work and that now is so convenient because this allows her to meet parents of teens from all over the world, have a broader network and create massive leverage for me.” 

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