We’ve seen it all before the pandemic: tribes of modern-day male and female Willy Lomans, manacled to cell phones, trundling 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. With COVID-19 and more remote employees, has this addiction gone underground—out of sight, out of mind? Could this be you burning the midnight oil? And how would you know if you were addicted to work?
Has Remote Working Driven The Addiction Underground?
According to a study of over 1,000 remote employees by Twingate, remote employment is causing workers to lose a sense of work/life balance during the pandemic. A total of 45% of employees reported attending more meetings during the pandemic than when working in the office, compared to 21% who attended fewer meetings. And 40% of employees have experienced mental exhaustion from video calls while working remotely. A Doodle, survey of more than 1,100 U.S. employees also cited symptoms of burnout among employees. Findings showed a full week of virtual meetings leaves 38% of employees feeling exhausted while 30% felt stressed. And employees said performance anxiety and business pressures are pushing them into competitive mode with 63% saying they were likely to record and re-watch their virtual meetings to become better presenters and strengthen their client relationships.
Work addiction is this century’s problem without a name. Workweeks of sixty, eighty, even a hundred hours are commonplace in major corporations, and some say they are working more because they have no boundaries when working from home. 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, 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. 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 could make it to the ski slopes, you would be 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.
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 tend to be in a hurry racing against deadlines.
___ 2. I stay busy with many irons in the fire.
___ 3. I’m a multi-tasker, 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 Yellow and Red Lighters
1. Work Mindfully. Make a conscious effort to toil in the present moment as much as possible instead of regretting past mistakes or worrying about future projects. Be mindful of your coworkers, and consider eating, walking and driving slower.
2. Find Balance. Make sure you balance your days with nutritious food, regular exercise and ample sleep. Spend time doing the things you put off.
3. Avoid Multitasking. Studies show that multitasking isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, that workers who focus on one task at a time are calmer and more effective and productive.
4. Set Boundaries. Refuse to commit to more projects when you’re already overloaded. Stop working at home at a certain hour just as you would in the office. Tell yourself there’s a limit to what you can do, refrain from setting unrealistic boundaries and see the practice of boundary setting as a strength, not a weakness.
5. Develop Self-Compassion. Instead of attacking yourself when you forget, make a mistake or fail at a task, 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. Mother Nature didn’t design your body to be desk-bound for long periods of time. Put time cushions between appointments, take time to breathe, eat a snack or stretch and move around.
7. Unplug. Set aside time for self-care to recharge your batteries. Just five or ten minutes a day can make a big difference in lowering your stress and raising your energy level. Indulge yourself with a nap, brief walk in nature or meditation to take your mind off red alert.
8. Block Off Time for Relationships. Leave space in your schedule to spend time with coworkers, friends and family. Take days off and vacations where you unwind and have fun.
9. Gain Deeper Insight. Look beneath your addiction to understand why you require yourself to overwork. And why that sanctuary is necessary for the uncertainties of living fully in the present.
10. Get Outside Help. If you can’t stop overworking on your own, many resources are available to help: professional counseling, support groups, and Workaholics Anonymous online meetings, where members work the Twelve Steps.
Robinson, B.E. et al. (2001). Marital Estrangement, Positive Affect, and Locus of Control Among Spouses of Workaholics and Spouses of Nonworkaholics: A National Study. American Journal of Family Therapy. 29, 397-410. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180127624
Robinson, B.E. (2014). Chained To The Desk: A Guidebook For Workaholics, Their Partners And Children, And The Clinicians Who Treat Them. New York: New York University Press.