Artboard 1

Workaholism: It's Not Just a Strong Work Ethic

Hello. My name is Pam, and I am a workaholic.

It was not always like this for me. There was a time when I would spend my days off doing things one does on a day off: gardening, baking and watching Law & Order marathons. These days, I more often find myself sitting in my home office on a Saturday morning just to check a few emails which then turns into working a full day. I know I am not the only one.

When my children were younger, I prided myself on my ability to balance my role at The Alexander Group (TAG) with my other jobs (Mom and House Manager). It was always crucial for me to demonstrate the importance of being self-sufficient and professionally fulfilled for my kids, but I have to admit: I also love being busy. Pursuing my career while raising two daughters always left me with another task to complete, another goal to achieve.

However, then my girls grew up, left for college, and took with them a huge portion of my daily responsibilities. A major part of my work was done—so I started spending more time at the office, taking on more responsibility at TAG. What I did not realize at the time was that I was not just adjusting to becoming an empty nester; I was also becoming addicted to my work.

Looking Deeper: When Work Becomes a Compulsion

Research has proved that workaholism is, indeed, much like an addiction. In a study on the psychology of the condition, University of Georgia professor Malissa Clark found some workaholics tend not to be motivated by a passion for their work or even a desire to succeed, but rather by the rush they get when they are on the job.

"Looking at the motivations behind working, workaholics seem pushed to work not because they love it but because they feel internal pressure to work. This compulsion is similar to having an addiction," Clark said.

While some psychologists have gone so far as to characterize workaholism as a "positive addiction," Clark and other researchers have noted that workaholics experience negative repercussions for putting in too many hours, including "burnout, job stress, work-life conflict, and decreased physical and mental health." After all, there's a reason the Japanese term for workaholism, karoshi, translates literally to "overwork death."

According to Bryan Robinson, Ph.D., author of "Chained to the Desk" and other books on the condition, workaholism is not only akin to addiction, but also "an obsessive-compulsive disorder ... not the same as working hard or putting in long hours"—two things the United States' work culture tends to lionize and reward.

Americans are notorious for working hundreds of hours more per year than the average European, not to mention taking far fewer vacations, as we have written about in the past. Compared to other countries, the U.S. is a nation of workaholics. Unfortunately, our 24/7 business week is not exactly paying off: Findings show working more can actually make professionals less productive, whereas taking time off and getting more sleep correlates to higher performance.

Plenty of us manage to work 40+ hours a week and find time for SVU reruns, while many others—from entry-level employees to managers to top executives—can't pull themselves away from their desks, even when they are at home.

Although there are as many reasons for workaholism as there are workaholics, a handful of root causes is often to blame. While the demands on executives can make the concept of "overtime" seem laughable, people do not simply become workaholics because their roles require they work 60 hours a week or more. Those who are addicted to their jobs could also be using work to quell feelings of anxiety or depression. They might also work to attain what Stanford University scientist Emma Seppala describes as "the fleeting high that comes from responding to that one extra email, getting that additional project out of the way, or checking one last thing off the to-do list."

For Me, It's the Fleeting High of a Completed Search

My own workaholism has much to do with the excitement of each search—it is exhilarating, like a drug and difficult to just "turn it off." Each search begins with creating the strategy of where to look for candidates, so waking up in the middle of the night with an idea is usually the norm. It is also hard to describe being an executive search consultant as "work" because during each search we have the privilege of engaging with interesting, intelligent and dynamic leaders. Additionally, there is no better feeling than completing a search for a client. The knowledge that a candidate is going to have a significant impact on our client and that the candidate will benefit from joining our client is so gratifying.

So, how do you give up a work addiction without having to give up the job? The solution is simple: work smart. That does not necessarily mean putting forth any less effort. Working hard and working nonstop is not the same thing. Cutting back or finding balance requires a certain amount of soul-searching, which makes sense; we are talking about a form of addiction, after all.

Check in with yourself: Why are you working too hard? What are you getting out of your work? More importantly, where else can you get the same sense of accomplishment that will bring more balance into your life?

All articles