Takeaway: We live in a culture that rewards hustle, hard work, and constant productivity that often leads to a cycle of overworking and burnout. No matter how compulsive your need to work may feel, you don’t have to be stuck in that cycle forever!
We are deeply steeped in a culture that rewards hustle, hard work, and constant productivity. This culture can lead to a cycle of overworking and burnout. It can also lead to workaholism, an addiction defined by a compulsive, uncontrollable obsession with work and the inability to disengage from work.
While some people may think obsessing about work is a badge of honor, workaholics suffer severe health and relational consequences due to their behaviors. Learning how to help a workaholic can be difficult, but helpful to a loved one who shows signs of a workaholic.
As a therapist and coach, I see many clients whose work habits are harmful to their health and hurt their relationships. I help them understand their compulsions toward work. Together we make a plan to create a better work-life balance for them. I also give advice to a workaholic as part of treatment, although there is plenty else that goes into the therapy work.
Workaholics are different from people who voluntarily work long hours or are otherwise engaged in their work. While both are heavily involved in work, workaholics don’t derive fun or pleasure from their work. They’re primarily driven by an inner compulsion to work.
So what are some signs of a workaholic?
Although there’s no official psychiatric diagnosis for workaholism (as there is for alcoholism, for example), The Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS) helps assess workaholism.
Here are 7 questions to ask yourself based on the BWAS. The study instructions state to score your answers on a 1-5 scale: 1 = “never”, 2 = “rarely”, 3 = “sometimes”, 4 = “often”, and 5 = “always.”
How often during the last year have you…
If you score a 4 or 5 on at least 4 of these questions, you may be a “workaholic.”
Whether you scored high on the scale above or suspect someone close to you might, dealing with workaholism is tough. It’s hard to know how to help a workaholic.
No matter how compulsive your need to work may feel, you don’t have to be stuck in that cycle forever. Help and support are available. Acknowledging there is a problem is the first step toward breaking free from workaholism.
Workaholism doesn’t develop overnight. It’s typically the result of underlying emotional or mental issues that are often unconscious. These issues are usually deeply rooted in your habits and beliefs. Detangling them can be very difficult. However, with consistency, practice, patience, and support, you can break out of the cycle and find balance. Here are 5 actions to take that can help you begin to break free from workaholism.
All addictions have underlying causes, often emotional or mental. Here are some common reasons people develop workaholism:
To find your underlying causes, try journaling or seeking support. A qualified therapist can help you unpack and make sense of these sensitive issues.
If you believe your worth is inherently tied to how productive you are, stopping your workaholic behaviors will be very difficult. Challenge these beliefs and ask yourself whether they’re genuinely your own or whether you got them from cultural or familial messaging. Many of the harmful beliefs or values we hold onto later on in life aren’t actually ours at all but are so deeply ingrained in us that we think they are.
If you’re an employee, communicate to your boss and colleagues that you will not be available during certain times (after hours and on weekends, say). Make sure they know that if they contact you, you will not respond – and then make sure to follow through with that boundary. If you have a work phone, leave it at the office if possible, and/or turn it off and put it somewhere unobtrusive, such as a sock drawer or on top of the fridge. You can also set limitations for yourself on screen time and app usage. If you’re self-employed, create work hours and then maintain them. Managing your time as an entrepreneur can be really tough, especially if you’re just getting started, so asking a friend or work colleague for accountability can be helpful. Planning after-work activities, such as going for a walk or attending a community class, is another helpful tool to signal to the brain that work is over.
In order to effectively disengage from work, it’s best to find something else to replace it with. Find and engage in hobbies you enjoy that have nothing to do with your job. Enroll in a cooking class, join a local pool and swim laps, or take up yoga or nature photography. Find groups or clubs to join and invite friends or family along. Involving other people in your goals increases accountability and allows you to reengage with people you may have lost touch with.
You shouldn’t have to navigate workaholism on your own. It’s a multi-faceted and complex addiction. Know that it’s not your fault you’re struggling with workaholism, and you deserve support. Whether you find a support group, a qualified therapist, or both, seeking help is key in disengaging from workaholism.
If you aren’t a workaholic but are worried your child or loved one might be, you can still help. Understand that this is an addiction, and the drive to work is a strong compulsion.
Workaholism is similar to an addiction to substances or gambling. The person affected often feels little or no control over their actions. They feel like they need to commit certain actions or behave a particular way. Therefore, doling out punishments or taking punitive action may not help resolve the actual problem.
What you can do is educate yourself and encourage your loved one to get help. Workaholism can erode relationships, lead to serious physical and mental health problems, and significantly narrow the scope of a person’s life. Luckily, nobody dealing with workaholism has to manage it alone.
Working with a therapist or coach can help you understand the addiction you or your loved one is dealing with. Together we will navigate potential underlying causes for your workaholism, examine any limiting values and beliefs you may have, and give you tools to build new skills and coping strategies. Our coaching sessions will help you learn how to disengage from work and re-engage with the rest of your life.
I offer private coaching packages specifically for moms who are struggling with workaholism and have a yearning for more time with their families. I provide coaching to anyone, anywhere in the world. You can reach out here for more information on these packages.
Those with a drive for perfectionism and strong desire to be seen and valued as “high achieving” are often also people pleasers. Click here to take a two-minute quiz to clarify and uncover your need to please. After you connect with your personal archetype, you'll receive resources to support you in overcoming those pesky people-pleasing tendencies!
Justine is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She helps teenagers, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflict and relationship issues. Justine is also the host of the podcast Thoughts From the Couch.