The cost of workaholism
“What are your resolutions this year?” a girlfriend recently asked me. I thought about the areas of my life I'd like to improve upon and responded, “I'd like to work less. I think I'm a workaholic.”
She paused for a bit then hesitantly said, “that doesn't sound like a problem” And indeed, when I'd talked about this with my mom just a week earlier, she said, “That's a good addiction.”
But it's easy to confuse hard work with being a workaholic. We assume an “addiction to work” means being dedicated and thorough, which is good.
But then there's the part where I sneak off to the bathroom during a weekend trip to check my email, and then, for some reason, feel an odd rush.
In Japan, they call it karoshi. And you might already know that it's quite literally killing people. In the past, I've joked around about being addicted to my work, but I'm starting to realize it may be a more serious problem than I thought, and, most importantly, it's been costing me.
Working Hard vs. Being a Workaholic
It was a Psychology Today piece that got me seriously thinking about this subject. Author Ray Williams details how overworked Americans are. We work an average of 54 hours a week, and the percentage of us working more than 40 hours a week has been steadily increasing. Williams then points to the issue of workaholism:
“A contributing factor to the problem of workaholism is the prevailing belief in hard work as the route to success, particularly wealth.”
Bingo — that's me. There's certainly nothing wrong with hard work, but Williams doesn't seem to think a good American work ethic is responsible for these staggering statistics — it's more their addiction work, which he says stems from the desire to amass wealth.
It started out innocently enough, but I've gone from working hard to needing to work at all times — the weekend, dinner, vacation, etc. Working makes me feel safe and good, and it's gotten to the point that my brain equates a simple work task with sheer joy — a high. And that “prevailing belief” has been the premise for my high.
Example. I recently took a weekend trip with some friends. I decided to leave my laptop at home (there's still hope) and enjoy the house we'd rented overlooking a field of wineries. On Sunday, we were sipping mimosas outside when I decided to break out the iPad. Naturally, I looked at work stuff, and suddenly, I felt a wonderful surge. Even then, I knew it was odd. “Work should not be eliciting this sort of feeling,” I thought. Later, I read an article about how the workaholic's body releases Dopamine while working. Sure, it's a natural high, but it starts becoming an issue when work makes you feel better than anything else in your life, including vacation.
If you aren't a workaholic, this probably doesn't make sense to you. But based on the statistics, I'm not a rarity. Lots of us seem to be addicted to work.
How It Started
When I was working a regular office job, there were parameters. I put in 40 hours at a location separate from my home. In exchange, I received a set salary. Sure, I put in some extra hours here and there, but for the most part, I left work at work.
When I decided to freelance, things got tricky. Suddenly, I had more control over my income. I had control over how much or little I want to work, and I had control over where to work and to what extent I allow work to interfere with the rest of my life. This control sounds great, and it is — I love it. But it's been hard for me to set my own boundaries. Why?
I've written about being a fear-based saver. I grew up poor, and I don't want to go back to that place. So it's hard for me to say, “no.” It's hard for me not to want to work as much as possible. I like being in control; the control I have over work makes me feel good. Dopamine-good. As long as I'm working, I feel like I'm in complete charge of my own financial destiny. And maybe I am, and that's great, but it's not healthy to be driven by fear. Plus, like the article pointed out, I've subscribed to the oversimplified idea that, the harder I work, the wealthier I will become — and there are repercussions for this.
Career Quality; Life Quality
Work isn't as much fun as it should be. I switched careers for a reason — because this is what's enjoyable to me. But lately I'm not enjoying it; I've commodified it. It's just not as much fun this way. They say it's not work if you're doing what you love. But if you're constantly doing just that one thing, it gets old.
Brian and I have a vacation planned. I'm very excited, but the prevailing thought has been how this vacation might affect my work. Not cool.
There's no way to gauge how many hours a week I work, because I'm constantly thinking, talking or doing something work-related. It's a constant that robs me of my personal time. I want to read more. I'd like to write a book. I'd like to travel, go to trivia night, and take a lunch break. But my obsession gets in the way.
Why do I have an emergency fund? Why do I have a savings and retirement account and a budget? So I can be comfortable, not worry so much and take time to enjoy things. That's the value of that money for me. By being in a constant state of self-induced stress and by not fully enjoying anything outside of a single obsession, I'm diminishing the value of my money.
It's hard to think straight when you're obsessive. I remember faltering over calculus problems in high school. My teacher said to walk away, do something else, and then come back to it. It helped. A fresh perspective gave me the clarity necessary to do things the right way. This is something I need to remember in my career: if I keep obsessing and not taking the time to look at my work with a fresh, clear perspective, it's going to suffer. My career is going to suffer. Advancing in your career (and thus, building wealth), isn't just about hard work; it's also about maintaining quality and clarity.
Thinking about all this, I remembered the article I wrote on workplace gratitude. While I still agree with myself, I might have written it differently had I been thinking about workaholism at the time. I might have added a disclaimer. It's one thing to put in 110 percent because having a good work ethic is important to you. But putting your entire life into your job because you're fixated on it and need it in order to feel something…that is, I'm starting to realize, very unhealthy.
What I'm Doing About It
Not only does communicating this issue make it more real to me, it also keeps me from engaging in workaholic behavior. For example, Brian knows and agrees that I have an issue, so when my work email dings at dinner, I don't pick it up because he's looking at me like I'm some of kind of fiend.
Recently, things were becoming so overwhelming that I had to drop a client — this wasn't easy. It wasn't a huge loss income-wise, but it was still tough. Maybe because of how I grew up, this was like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But I did it; I politely said “no” and thereby set a boundary for myself.
Part of the reason the statistics keep climbing, I think, is that technology makes work so accessible. Even if you don't work from home, you likely take your office with you. I've started to disconnect. I've disabled email on my phone, for example, and set my laptop to automatically go to sleep.
Work is important. A career is important. I'm certainly not suggesting neglecting either one. But personally, I've gone overboard, and ultimately, I guess it stems from a fixation on building wealth. And I'm still intent on building wealth. But while I do think hard work pays off, I've found that an obsession with it can backfire and end up costing you instead.