Work addiction is this century’s cocaine, its problem without a name. Workweeks of sixty, eighty, even a hundred hours are commonplace in major corporations. Tribes of modern-day male and female Willy Lomans, manacled to cell phones, trundle through the nation’s airports at all hours with their rolling luggage; coffeehouses filled with serious people bent over laptops, and young workers at dot-coms available for 24/7 work. Could this be you? And how would you know if you were addicted to work?
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. You don’t need drugs because your bloodstream manufactures its own crystal meth. You’re an adrenaline junkie, moaning about things moving too slowly and the shortage of time. You put yourself under the gun, overloading yourself with more job tasks and unrealistic deadlines than you can possibly complete. Unable to catch up with these demands, you can’t stop thinking about, talking about, or engaging in work. You get soused from adrenaline-charged binge working that throw you into a cycle of frantic toiling around the clock, hurrying and rushing, and multitasking to get to the finish line.
You work nonstop for days on end—morning to night, weekends, and holidays—instead of spreading out work projects over time. You throw all-nighters to meet self-imposed deadlines, sometimes sleeping off a work binge in your clothes. Your uncontrollable urge to work takes priority over every aspect of your life, engulfing you in a frenetic work fog—known as brownouts—that numb you to anxiety, worry, and stress and to other people. These work trances take you out of the present moment and cause you to forget conversations, misplace belongings, or lose your train of thought.
Unlike your non-addicted co-workers, dreaming about being on the ski slopes, you shun downtime or vacations. If you’re able to make it to the ski slopes, you’re on your cell phone dreaming about being back in the office or on your laptop. Your 24/7 electronic devices keep you connected to the job and disconnected from other people. Work highs, reminiscent of alcoholic euphoria, eventually give way to work hangovers: withdrawal, depression, irritability, anxiety, and ultimately burnout.
You hit bottom before you can admit you have a problem and get the help you need. The glamour of accolades, promotions, and fat paychecks start to peel off like old varnish. You can no longer wear your workaholic label like a prize or think of yourself as simply a bon vivant about town. You feel as if people are ganging up against you, an outsider at work, home, and play. Old friends don’t call anymore, and loved ones complain about your absence. Your boss breathes down your neck, and you lose favor with the company. Life loses it glow; you find yourself alone, unable to feel, and cut off from everyone you care about—perhaps so depressed you can’t get out of bed.
Your workaholic lifestyle not only steals your soul, it impairs your mental and physical health. It can even lead to death—known as karoshi in Japan, where ten thousand workers a year keel over at their desks from stroke or heart attack after putting in sixty-to-seventy hour workweeks. If any of this sounds like you or someone you know and care about, read on to discover what you can do.
Quiz: Are You Chained to the Desk?
In my book, Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, I developed the WART (the Work Addiction Risk Test) to test work addiction. I have included a shortened version of the WART here for you to rate your work habits using the scale of 1: never true, 2: sometimes true, 3: often true, or 4: always true. Put the number that best describes you in the blank beside the statement. Then add the numbers for your total score.
___ 1. I seem to be in a hurry, racing against deadlines.
___ 2. I stay busy with many irons in the fire.
___ 3. I’m a multitasker, engaging in simultaneous activities such as eating lunch,
reading emails, and talking on the phone.
___ 4. I over commit myself by biting off more than I can chew.
___ 5. I feel guilty when I’m not working on something.
___ 6. I’m still working after my coworkers have called it quits.
___ 7. It’s hard to relax and unplug when I’m not working—even on vacation.
___ 8. I spend more time working than socializing with loved ones and friends or
enjoying hobbies or leisure activities.
Interpret Your Score
8–16: Green light. You’re a hard worker with good work-life balance whose work style isn’t workaholic for you or others.
17–24: Yellow light. You have a tendency to become busy and work to the exclusion of what’s important to you. Your work habits are mildly workaholic, but with modifications you can find balance and prevent job burnout.
25–32: Red light. You’re chained to the desk, a workaholic at risk for burnout. You have a double-barrel stress level, and other people get a busy signal when they try to connect with you.
Ten Tips for Recovery
1. Slow Down. Make a conscious effort to unplug and recharge your batteries. It’s counter-intuitive but true. Plodding puts you at the finish line in time, plus you get to enjoy life instead of rushing through it. Consider eating, walking, and driving slower and remember: the tortoise won the race.
2. Balance Your Life. Tell yourself there’s a limit to what you can do and put the rest out of the picture. Start to see this attitude not as weakness but strength. Make sure you balance your days with nutritional food, regular exercise, and ample sleep.
3. Avoid Multitasking. Studies show that multitasking isn’t what it’s cracked up to be and in fact that it takes longer to go from one task to the next because of the added time to refresh your memory of each task. Workers who focus on one task at a time are more efficient and productive.
4. Set Boundaries. Learn to say no and to avoid overcommitting to projects when you’re already overloaded. Focus on work that you have already committed to. Prioritize tasks, focus first on those that require immediate attention, and refrain from imposing unrealistic deadlines on yourself.
5. Send Guilt Packing. If you feel guilty not working, remember that it’s your work addicted bully nagging you. 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.
6. Come Up for Air. Our bodies are not designed to be desk-bound for long periods of time. 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.
7. Unplug. Set aside personal time for self-care. Just fifteen or twenty minutes a day can make a big difference in lowering stress and raising your energy level. Indulge yourself with a nap, a brief walk outside, or a manicure. Try reading, yoga, or meditation to take your mind off red alert.
8. Block Off Time for Relationships. Leave space in your schedule to spend time with friends and loved ones. Celebrate important holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. Take days off and Learn to play and have fun with friends and family. You’ll be happier, healthier, and you’ll live longer.
9. Gain Deeper Insight. Until the centrality of your relationship to overworking is addressed, little else is likely to change. It’s important to look beneath your addiction and gain insight into why certain inner vulnerabilities cause you to seek, for understandable reasons, a sanctuary from the uncertainties of living a fully present life with all its textures and disappointments.
10. Get Help. Some people can’t stop overworking on their own and need outside help. Many resources are available to help break compulsive work habits. You might need a support group or professional counseling to achieve successful recovery. Workaholics Anonymous (www.workaholics-anonymous) meetings, where members work the Twelve Steps, are free and available online and onsite in major cities around the country.
Once you take charge of your out-of-control work habits, seek help, and gain a deeper understanding of the problem, it can lead you to a place in your life where career success and personal and intimate fulfillment reside side by side—where you will know more about special times without imperatives, with idle moments when there’s nothing to rush to, fix, or accomplish. And where you can give yourself the gift of being present in each moment, living it to the fullest.