Stop Wearing Your Work Addiction Like a Badge of Honor

Sarah Moe used to sleep in her office. Not every day, but sometimes there was just too much to do. As a 28-year-old attorney in Los Angeles, she was no stranger to “the grind,” where meals are eaten at desks and under-eye circles are the gold medals of achievement.

She was young, had a big apartment and an even bigger paycheck. Sure, she missed a few family birthday parties and didn’t have much time for friends. But Moe lived, by many accounts, the perfect life. And then she had a stress-induced stroke.

“That was my breaking point,” she said. “Realizing that I was in my 20s and had just suffered from something that we expect my grandparents to have.”

Man being bombarded by his coworkers. Work Addiction pbs rewire
Not in frame: Someone holding out a floppy disk.

Like other addictions, workaholism might feel great in the beginning. We often receive external validation from envious peers and proud bosses, which makes us feel important. Our titles and salaries rise concurrently. We are achievers.

But then something happens: We no longer enjoy the grind. The external validation isn’t enough to keep us going. But we keep going anyway.

Then we burn out. Like a professional athlete, we’ve received our first negative consequence: an injury. But instead of listening to our bodies, we push through the pain.

“It’s a loss of control,” said Steven Sussman, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California and a longtime addiction researcher. “(It’s) not just because they want to win an award; they need the buzz. They need the effect in order to feel like they can thrive.”

What are you thinking about?

Workaholism isn’t a disease, according to the American Medical Association. You won’t find it listed in the DSM-5. And yet, a growing body of research estimates that between 10 and 25 percent of U.S. adults are affected. Wayne Oates, a psychologist and self-diagnosed workaholic, first defined workaholism in 1971 as an “uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” Since then, a host of researchers have published a variety of competing definitions, which makes for some gray areas of understanding.

By Sussman’s framework, five factors must be present to constitute an addiction:

  • Appetitive effect: The desire for fulfillment. People might find this in love, work, belonging, etc.
  • Satiation: You feel valued, needed, important.
  • Preoccupation: You begin to obsessively think about work. It becomes a top priority.
  • Loss of control: When “I’m just going to check email for five minutes” turns into a full-blown workday.
  • Negative outcome: Burnout, strained relationships, deteriorating physical and mental health.

Identifying workaholism can be tricky. It’s all about your mindset and actions outside of your workplace, Sussman said. When you’re at home with family or friends, do you sneak away to check email? When you’re on vacation, do you feel guilty for spending so much time away from your laptop? In casual conversation, how often do you bring up work?

It’s not about how many hours you work. After all, launching a new business takes time and effort. Workaholism is the inability to detach from work and live out the other parts of your life.

Young woman sleeping on top of her laptop at her desk. Work Addiction pbs rewire
That nap would be a lot better in your bed at home.

Although diagnosing workaholism early on can be difficult, the long-term effects are clear. People who are unable to detach from their work suffer from memory problems, severe weight fluctuations, poor sleep, increased chances of type II diabetes and heart disease.

For those struggling to find a healthy balance, start with these tips.

1. Keep a worry journal

When you begin to feel anxious, write down the thoughts that pop into your head. Note how many are work-related.

If the majority of your worried thoughts are about work, consider how many of them are rational, realistic concerns versus fear-based thoughts. If your concerns are valid, consider what steps you can take to alleviate these concerns without giving away the majority of your time and energy.

2. Ask for help

Reach out to your network of family and friends. They can often spot addictive work behaviors before you can. Workaholism increases the likelihood of divorce by 40 percent, according to a 2001 study by Bryan Robinson, author and workaholism researcher.

Sit down with your partner and determine what a balanced life looks like to them. Like any other addiction, workaholism should be taken seriously. If necessary, enlist the help of a professional to understand and work through any underlying issues.

3. Schedule time for self-care and honor it

This means logging out of email, hiding your phone in a locked drawer—whatever it takes. Your health and happiness is on the line and you must fiercely protect it.

Consider meditation or journaling to ease your anxiety. Often these therapeutic measures also allow us to more clearly identify the imbalances in our lives, according to a 2015 study on the intersection between meditation and self-awareness.

For Moe, it took a minor stroke to make the necessary life changes. She left her job at the firm and became the co-founder of Flauk, a company designed to help launch small businesses and create a culture of happiness. She began meditating, which helped her stop being “a giant ball of stress,” and has self-care on her schedule every Friday, anything from running personal errands to a day at the spa.

“I’ve really learned to just put myself and my relationships first,” Moe said. “Because I’m not going to be an effective businesswoman if I’m not happy.”

Cecilia Meis

Cecilia Meis is a full-time freelance writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas. Her work has appeared in Time Out Dallas, SUCCESS, Healthline and others. Outside of work, she plays beach volleyball, attempts home cooking and is ardently working toward making her cat, Nola, Insta-famous.