Research published by the Centre for Future Work in 2020,  shows that with the shift towards working from home due to COVID there has been an increase in the average unpaid hours of work. An increase from 4.6 hours to 5.3 hours, confirming an upward trend for the Australian worker. According to their November 2020 Report the average Australian worker puts in 7 standard 38hr work weeks, unpaid per year – a fertile breeding ground for workaholism. And before you get judgmental, we all have the capacity to become a workaholic.
While there are many perspectives on what defines a workaholic there is a shared view on three aspects . A workaholic is characterised by someone who:
While many employers enjoy the fruits of workaholics and at times encourage them, ultimately this behaviour is destructive to everyone. It destroys good will and there are real risks for the individual.
Working for long periods of time without sufficient rest, re-sets a higher stress baseline causing harmful stress to be experienced sooner. This can lead to unhelpful behaviours to down-regulate stress and/or emotional outbursts that are in excess of the situation. Often these are the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ type outbursts. This results in people forgetting all the good work that has been done up until then, only remembering the outburst. Over time the outbursts could become more frequent and will negatively impact your professional reputation.
If you are a leader, your outbursts could lead team members to consider you unpredictable. If that happens, your behaviour has led to a decrease in the psychological safety of your team, meaning you are less likely to be told unpopular news for fear of an outburst.
The more work gets prioritized (in actions or thoughts) over other aspects of life, the greater likelihood of increasing stress levels. The moderating effect of social connection falls away and opportunities for connection decrease. It is not uncommon for workaholics to suddenly realise how disconnected they feel from friendships and significant relationships. Often workaholics when they reduce their focus on work because of a commitment they made to having better ‘balance’, experience intense emotions which prompt them back into prioritizing work where they can ignore or hide from those emotions.
As a leader, if you connect to your work in order to disconnect from difficult emotions, demonstrating empathy is likely challenging for you. Your difficulty in showing empathy could be harmful to work relationships as well as other relationships. Disconnection promotes a focus on tasks as opposed to the relationship which inevitably will lead to a less relational leadership style which is less growth oriented.
In one of my roles, I worked with someone who was unable to demonstrate empathy. She came across as having unrelenting standards and her approach was ‘my way, the high way.’ Being exposed to that style of leadership over a period of time was demoralizing and I found myself increasingly less engaged with my role, client base and organization. My local leader was unable to support me because this person was considered a powerhouse because she lived and breathed the organization. The end result was I left, and so will many others looking for a leader who can express empathy with integrity.
Take on more responsibility than they need to
Often workaholic tendencies develop as a result of a desire to demonstrate proficiency and expertise in a particular area. Sometimes this is from the alignment in purpose which tips into workaholic behaviours or as a salve to ‘get through’ a painful time. As a result, they become super-proficient at what they do. This then gives them extra capacity, which they often fill with self-imposed responsibility. Nobody asked them to, yet they did. Over time they have so much to do, work does take over their lives and they struggle to break free from the cycle of working longer and harder rather than decluttering their responsibilities. The impact of this is that they may struggle to meet their self-imposed standards and negatively impact their confidence.
This is different to those people who have seemingly endless supplies of energy because they are so connected to the work that they do or the outcome it produces. Admittedly if you work with someone who so committed to their work, and you don’t share that same level of commitment, you do run the risk of burning out while trying to keep up.
The impact of high levels of prolonged stress on any employee will lead to a lack of focus and concentration which will ultimately impact the quality of their work. Not least because of tiredness but also mental exhaustion due to managing the work thoughts while carrying out other tasks. Some of the ways this could reveal itself is in automaticity in their approach to work, missing deadlines or making uncharacteristic mistakes which over time could impact the person’s self-esteem. Not all workaholics have high leave balances, but they may struggle to take a sick day when they are feeling unwell or to let go of the office, while they are on holiday.
The continued toll on a workaholic’s mental and physical health cannot be underestimated. A Spanish study  showed that workaholics experience significantly more sleep problems i.e. morning tiredness, sleeping while driving and sleeping fewer hours both on weekdays and at weekends, with poorer quality. The study also showed workaholics consume more caffeine and alcohol than the other patterns of workers (positive, compulsive and hard workers).
Research conducted in 2017  showed leaders are generally a sleep-deprived population and the main reason for this is their inability to psychologically detach from work when they’re not there. Possibly indicating many leaders are workaholics!
The impact of disrupted sleep on leaders is that tired leaders are unlikely to inspire those they’re leading  and sleep-deprived leaders were more impatient, irritable, and antagonistic, which results in worse relationships .
If you think you could be a workaholic or at risk of developing workaholic tendencies, here are 5 questions to ask yourself.
To get an accurate view of whether you are a workaholic or at risk of becoming one it’s essential that you’re honest with yourself in answering the following questions. If you answer Yes more than No, then it’s time to make some changes. If you need support to break the pattern of behaviour, seek support from a trusted colleague or professional.
If this is the case, then it’s entirely possible that you’re simply trying to make things more efficient or have the opportunity to do project work that you’re interested in. However, if you’re completing tasks as a strategy to take on extra work to stay later at work, you may be retreating into your work rather than engaging with what you’re avoiding.
Sometimes you make bad judgement calls on the amount of time you need to complete a particular task but maybe you have got accustomed to focusing on lots of unimportant tasks. If you’re getting caught up in aspects that do not impact the substance of what you’re doing, then it could indicate obsessive behaviour. Work will always be there tomorrow.
Negative emotions are powerful catalysts. In many professions that capacity to compartmentalize is highly valued. However, when the compartmentalizing becomes a way of life and enables continued avoidance of negative emotions then it’s a sign that work is providing the escape and possibly causing a person to feel isolated.
When you start to let go of activities that used to bring you joy and replace it with work it could be a sign that you have started to go down the path towards becoming a workaholic. Or you may just be going through a busy period. If so, make sure it doesn’t become a habit and you go back to the activities that bring you joy.
I remember early on in my career one of my bosses was concerned I was developing workaholic tendencies because I had no activities outside of work apart from catching up with friends. She encouraged me to join the local community college and take a course. Realistically with a daily 3hr commute (1.5hrs) each way that was not really an option for me. I was quite happy going home to my tv and hanging out on the couch.
Exercise is an important part of our human existence and we need to exercise regularly, even more so if we’re stressed. Stress needs movement.
If after reviewing your responses to these questions you find you'd like to make some changes, I'd be happy to help you. Book a 30minute strategy session with me so you can work out how best to break the habit.
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