All Work, No Play? Beat Your Work Addiction Before It Beats You

Illustration: Norah Stone
Even though it's been likened to some serious forms of addiction, workaholism is often a glamorised and celebrated part of our culture. People proudly wear the ‘workaholic’ title like a badge of honour without stopping to consider the adverse effects that inevitably come with an unhealthy attachment to work. To clarify, a workaholic is defined as "a person who compulsively works excessively hard and long hours". The written definition doesn't exactly sound like fun but the reality can be much worse.
“One of the problems I see from a societal point of view is that success obsession and workaholism are idealised in modern western cosmopolitan society,” says therapist Ales Zivkovic. “Unlike other addictions – take for instance drug addiction or alcoholism – there doesn’t seem to be any despise or shame associated with workaholism. On the contrary, general society sees it as an ideal. Just take a look at the messages entrepreneurs are bombarded with and how idolised the ability to burn yourself out and overwork yourself is in the business world. This makes workaholism harder to tackle.”
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Now that this fixation with our jobs has become so normalised, it’s possible to get lost in mountains of work and not realise that you’ve gone from someone who’s hardworking and dedicated to someone unable to switch off and keep their personal and professional lives separate.
Martin Woolley is the CEO of media agency The Specialist Works, which has made it on to The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For list for the last three years. He explains: “There’s this blurry line between working hard and being engaged in what you do for a living, which is a healthy thing, but then not being able to set and keep boundaries for work so that you lose perspective.”
It’s a balancing act that’s amplified when you add self-employment to the mix. Being addicted to work is almost an intrinsic part of entrepreneurship because your livelihood depends on how successfully your business performs. Those responsible for setting their own hours and workloads can find it harder to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
Take Hayley Smith, owner of Boxed Out PR, for example. As a self-confessed workaholic, she admits that her attachment to work has caused rifts in her relationship. “My phone is my world. Everything is on it so I’d be completely lost without it,” she says. “It drives my partner mad, and it causes so many arguments. He hates it and is literally at the point where he’ll take my phone away from me.”
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Garden designer Nikki Hollier also runs her own business and struggles to find time for herself. “I don’t have a social life and that’s something I’ve noticed in the last few months or so. I’d like to get more balance in my life and go out with friends to actually do something, rather than go for a coffee because we want to talk about our accounts or content marketing.”
So how can we strike the right balance? Work-life balance expert, Mary LoVerde, says: “The first thing is to admit that you’re spending too many hours at work. Secondly you need to look at whether or not you really accomplish less if you leave work an hour earlier, and research tells us that there’s no significant difference when this happens. The question we’re always asking ourselves is ‘What do I need to do?’ That’s the workaholic’s mantra. I think a better question to ask is ‘What do I need to quit?’ Do I need to quit thinking that I get all of my rewards at work and start looking at other parts of my life? Do I need to quit having that Monday morning meeting where nobody gets anything done anyway because they’re all so tired?”
She continues: “Your body and your emotions are a great feedback system. If you’re sleeping well, if you love your job, if you’re productive and if you have great relationships, you’ve got work-life balance. If you don’t, your body will talk to you, your relationships start to deteriorate and you’ll stop feeling like yourself. That’s when you know you’re out of balance.
“Connection is what creates balance. Connection with your family, friends, colleagues, clients, your community, your God. When you become disconnected from those things because you're working so hard, it prevents you from ever getting a sense of wellbeing.”
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