How to Manage Workaholism

UPDATED: March 29, 2024
PUBLISHED: November 2, 2018

It goes by many names: the hustle, the grind, going all in. Entrepreneurs wear their long work hours, dark under-eye circles and stress-induced weight fluctuations like badges of honor. We look up to these people, who sacrifice such things as weekends and a good night’s rest, as the dedicated few willing to do what it takes to achieve greatness. They seem almost superhuman, eternally ready to be the first one in and last one out. But many times, it’s personal relationships, self-care and play—all proven as necessary parts of a healthy, balanced life—that come as a price for these achievements.

Related: 7 Signs You’re Addicted to Ambition

What might look like an admirable work ethic can go by another name: workaholism. And although the research hasn’t been around that long, most experts agree that between 10 and 25 percent of U.S. adults qualify.

A Shaky Definition

Workaholism is not listed as a mental illness in the DSM-5. It’s difficult to define and even tougher to diagnose. The term itself wasn’t coined until the late 1960s by Wayne Oates, a psychologist and self-diagnosed workaholic. Workaholism, by Oates’ definition, is “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”

Defining a workaholic versus someone with an incredible work ethic—say, a dedicated entrepreneur trying to launch her first business—isn’t easy. Most experts agree that it has to do with your mindset toward work. An entrepreneur must often clock long hours in the early stages of her business, but if she’s able to detach and apply the same dedication to relaxation time, she’s likely not experiencing the symptoms of long-term workaholism. Conversely, the entrepreneur who clocks long hours and still feels guilty about not accomplishing more, who obsessively checks work emails and often discusses work in casual conversation, might need to take a second glance.

An entrepreneur must often clock long hours in the early stages of her business, but if she’s able to detach and apply the same dedication to relaxation time, she’s likely not experiencing the symptoms of long-term workaholism.

The Consequences

Whatever the definition, the results of an unhealthy work obsession has some pretty serious long-term consequences. Poor sleep, digestive issues and memory issues, increased excessive drinking and chances of type 2 diabetes are all commonly cited side effects. Workaholism often manifests in those who struggle to find self-fulfillment, and rest their ego on a shaky foundation of social and peer approval. Struggling to delegate as leaders, they often come to believe that they are not only the best ones for the task, but the only ones.

Although the work-obsessed might seem like the most productive of a bunch, a growing body of research also shows that placing prolonged levels of strain on the brain and body lead to diminished levels of productivity over time. Those working around and under the overachiever might feel incompetent, and eventually resentful, leading to an unhealthy and even toxic work environment. The workaholic becomes a victim of his own making, the subject of both admiration and sympathy.

Managing Workaholism

If you struggle to welcome and capitalize on opportunities to recharge; if you dream about work while on vacation, and spend countless sleepless nights obsessing over minor work-related issues, you might need to make a self-assessment and consider some serious changes.

1. Do a self-checkup. Scan your brain and body for signs of exhaustion and deprivation. If you’re having trouble, reach out to a trusted friend or relative—they might be better equipped to make an unbiased assessment.

2. Talk to your partner. Workaholism doubles the risk of divorce. If the two of you observe a problem, sit down with your loved one to address any unmet needs. Map out what a healthy work/life balance looks like to him or her, and compare it with yours.

3. Log those times when you’re obsessively thinking about work. Keep track especially during scheduled times of relaxation. Consider seeking professional help to address any underlying issues that could be contributing to your impulsive work habits. Also consider joining an established support group, such as Workaholics Anonymous.

4. Put away your phone and laptop while at home. If your type of work doesn’t allow long periods of disconnection, set aside times that you’re not to be disturbed. If need be, enlist a co-worker or employee to field calls and emails during those times.

5. Write down your moments of non-working gratitude. For example, when you’re able to attend your child’s school play or spend a weekend at the lake with friends.

Related: How to Leave Work at the Door

Marina_Byezhanova_rchblkMarina Byezhanova

Co-founder and director of Pronexia, Inc.; Montreal

As someone who works a lot but also strives to be an excellent parent, I carry a lot of guilt. When I am at home, I feel guilty about not working; when I am working, I feel guilty about not being at home. My strategy is to continuously work on my internal peace so that I can be focused on the task at hand and disconnect when need be.

We all define balance in a uniquely personal way. To me, balance means not being able to go all in on any one thing. I was able to grow my business to over $1 million in revenue by year four, but I had to accept that I am unable to achieve 10 times that while being a present and dedicated parent to two children. I am an excellent parent but I do not have time to volunteer weekly at my daughter’s school or bake for the semi-annual bake sale as many other mothers do. Balance comes in the form of working 75-hour weeks but turning off all devices and focusing on family on the weekend. We all have our own structure. Accept that, own it and stop feeling guilty about defining your own paths to success and happiness.

Carisa_Miklusak_rchblkCarisa Miklusak

CEO and president of tilr; New York City

When I was in my early 20s, I won a sales contest and got to spend an afternoon with Jack Welch. He told me that he didn’t believe in work-life balance, but rather in work-life choices. This stuck with me and still resonates today. Ensuring you are choosing to work hard, and not a habitual slave out of habit or lack of another model, is what defines a workaholic from a healthy hard-worker or overachiever.

There is a give and take when you choose to prioritize anything in life. When stuck between a work and life event, I often use a simple technique to explore how I’ll feel about missing both events. I step into the future and I’ll tell the story backwards, as if I didn’t go to the event. If it’s an easy story to tell, it’s an event that you can likely miss. If you can’t tell the story with a good ending, then it should take priority.

Stop looking for the traditional definition of balance, and start making more choices about what you’re going to do with your time at work and what you’re going to do with your time away from work. The key is being intentional and in control of your schedule versus swept away.

Thomas_Nguyen_1_rchblkThomas Nguyen

Co-founder and CEO of Peli Peli Restaurant Group; Houston

I love what I do, and being in the restaurant industry, it’s hard for us to ever really turn off. But if I don’t manage my work time well, it can have a negative effect on my personal life and relationship with my wife. At the end of the day, we only have so much time together. If you want a fruitful work and personal life, you have to make efforts to give quality time to both. It’s not easy. My wife likes to sleep in on the weekends and enjoys our meals together. So I wake up early to work and take care of other personal items and stay up late when she goes to sleep. I do my best to make it home for dinner together, then work afterward. You have to figure out what your partner needs most, and then work around their schedule.

If you want to have your cake and eat it too, you have to make sacrifices and create a schedule that allows you to be effective as an entrepreneur and be there for the important moments in your personal life. None of us are getting any younger, and you can’t recreate the personal time you have with your loved ones. Being an entrepreneur, we don’t have a schedule, per se, so we shouldn’t have an issue finding time for work and for play.

Related: Are You a Workaholic?

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.