Emma Seppälä Ph.D.

Feeling It

What To Do if You Have Work Addiction

Do you find yourself compulsively trying to achieve and be productive?

Posted Jan 29, 2019

Do you find yourself compulsively trying to achieve and be productive? You hardly finished one task before your mind is on to the next one. You work hard to clear things off your to-do list, and then immediately fill it up again. You might be working on a presentation or article, but your mind is already on the topic you will cover in the next one. The problem is that research shows that approaching work in this manner—no matter how “productive” it might feel—is actually working against you.

Work addiction, unlike addictions involving alcohol or other substances, is rewarded by our culture with promotions, bonuses, praise, and awards—and therefore considered a good thing. However, what we don’t realize is that workaholism has a long-term negative effect, not only on our well-being, but also, ironically, on our productivity

Few of us actually consider the cost of workaholism. Research shows that workaholism:

  • Harms your physical and emotional health and well-being
  • Lead to 120,000 deaths per year
  • Doubles your risk of diagnosable depression and anxiety
  • Lowers your productivity and decreases your performance (!)
  • Increases sleep problems which further reduce productivity and performance
  • Reduce your attention span
  • Negatively impact all those around you, in turn harming your work and personal relationships as well as your family’s health.

Workaholism actually leads to greater costs to organizations too due to stress-related accidents, absenteeism, employee turnover, diminished productivity, medical costs and workers’ compensation—all of which cost the U.S. industry over $300 billion annually. Turnover costs alone are $3,500 to replace one $8/hour worker. What’s more, industries across the board (from non-profit to healthcare) are seeing burnout rates of 50-70 percent.

Why have we gotten caught up in such a frantic approach to productivity? Because a major theory of success we live by is that, in order to succeed and be happy, you need to focus on the future. People think that success requires extreme sacrifices in the present—foregoing personal happiness, enduring negative feelings and tremendous stress—because the eventual payoff is worth it.

Be More Productive by Detaching From Work

Thanks to smartphones and email (70 percent of people sleep with their phones next to their bed) boundaries between work and our personal lives are more blurry than ever. Many people take work home and on holidays with them. As a consequence, the stress of the day blends into evenings and vacations and eats up recovery time. Sabine Sonnentag, professor at the University of Mannheim in Germany, has found that people who do not know how to detach from work during their off time experience increased exhaustion over the course of one year and are less resilient in the face of stressful work conditions.

Because she has found that psychological detachment from work is particularly difficult when the job’s workload and time pressure are high, Sabine Sonnentag stresses how critical it is to learn to consciously detach from work when it is highly demanding. Sonnentag has found that psychological distance from work is the fastest path to recovery and leads—surprisingly perhaps—to increased productivity. “From our research, one can conclude that it is good to schedule time for recovery and to use this time in an optimal way.” Activities that Sonnentag’s research confirms help with detachment are exercise, walks in nature, and total absorption in a non-work-related hobby. Positively reflecting about your job after work hours can also help replenish you.

Try Breathing, Instead of Coffee, For Energy

It’s not just a lack of work-life balance that is burning us out, however. We play an active role in exhausting ourselves by keeping our adrenaline levels high. In the name of productivity, we have learned how to activate our stress response daily—often fueled by copious amounts of coffee. Although the “fight or flight” stress response is meant for rare and life-threatening occasions, we choose to activate it voluntarily. In fact, most people depend on high adrenaline to meet the demands of the day. You may recognize that you purposefully call on it by over-scheduling yourself, overcommitting and waiting until the last minute to complete projects—because you depend on anxiety to fuel yourself. When you are tired and really need to rest, you may find that you instead choose to keep pushing or relying on stimulants like caffeine, sugar, or energy drinks to give you the “high” you need to keep going. In fact, a growing trend shows that students and professionals are engaging in the dangerous (not to mention addictive) habit of popping stimulant drugs designed to treat attention deficit disorder so as to stay up and focus for longer hours. We have simply become hooked on the fast lane.

What we don’t realize, however, is that we are burning our body and mind out in the process. Is it surprising that, when we come home at night, we’re still buzzing from the day and can’t relax and go to sleep? Overstimulated and unable to calm down, we turn to depressants like alcohol and sleeping pills or anti-anxiety medication for balance. The constant back-and-forth between stimulant-induced anxiety and depressant-induced drowsiness wreaks havoc on our already exhausted nervous system.

Research that we have conducted shows that consciously doing breathing can help significantly reduce our stress and anxiety levels, sometimes in minutes. Breathing sounds simplistic, but it’s arguably the single most important action of our life. It is also the most neglected one, because it mostly happens on its own and below the level of our awareness. What makes breathing so unique is that it can happen automatically (like digestion and heartbeat), or it can be controlled through will. It is the one autonomic function you have a say over. Breathing is a tool that we have on hand all the time to help us in stressful situations, such as being stuck in traffic on the way to work. Research suggests that taking deep breaths into your abdomen and lengthening your exhales so they are longer than your inhales helps your nervous system relax. Learning breathing techniques in a class from a trained instructor can be helpful.

There is little evidence that leading an adrenaline-fueled life makes you more productive. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that a chronically stressful lifestyle damages your physical health and your cognitive faculties. And that consciously taking deep slow breaths reduces your anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure.

Adapted from THE HAPPINESS TRACK by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.