Understanding and Managing Workaholism

Workaholic-burnout-depression-anxiety-psychologist

Molly has been working for three years in her current company. Recently, she has been promoted to become the youngest team leader in the organization. This is because she takes on extra projects and sometimes even leaves her office at 2am to complete her tasks. Molly’s colleagues describe her as a “workaholic”. She has little time to meet up with her friends and often misses family gatherings. When her parents ask her about her love life, Molly tells them that she has no time to date because she is focusing on her career.

Although Molly is a fictional character, workaholics are not uncommon in Singapore. According to a study conducted in 2019, Singapore was ranked the second most overworked city. Singaporeans work an average of 44.6 hours per week, with 23% of the workforce working at least 48 hours per week. It is clear that many Singaporeans are working much more than their counterparts overseas (Kisi, 2019). This is a concern as workaholism is associated with higher levels of job burnout and depression (Nie & Sun, 2015). Hence, this article seeks to provide an understanding of why some people are workaholics and ways to deal with it.

If you are uncertain you are a workaholic, here are some tell-tale signs:

  • You are working most of the time.

  • You feel guilty for taking a break.

  • You don’t prioritise hobbies or leisure.

  • You take on extra responsibilities.

  • You think about work when you are not working (Malinowska, & Tokarz, 2014).

Factors that increase risk for workaholism

Perfectionism

Workaholics typically have internalised high standards and believe that they have to meet these standards, or have failed. They perceive that it is important to meet these standards but rarely take pleasure from success as they are always focused on the next task. This could be traced to the expectations placed on them in their early years by their caregivers (Young et al., 2003). Hence, they internalised these rules and are constantly driven by achievements (Malinowska, & Tokarz, 2014). This is applicable to the setting in Singapore, where Singaporeans are ‘kiasu’—scared of losing out. It is no suprise that we are obsessed to not lose out in the rat race.

The competitive nature of our society fuels our motivation to keep reaching for perfection. It is relatively typical for clients in our practice who are struggling with anxiety and perfectionism to recall that their parents may focus on the marks lost in their examinations, even if it was just one or two, while they were growing up. This results to in a need to strive for perfection. While striving for these high standards can produce quality work, intense exhaustion is often experienced because there is so much to do in so little time. Additionally, workaholics relentlessly put pressure on themselves to keep working. If they don’t continuously work, they would feel guilty for taking breaks (Malinowska, & Tokarz, 2014).

Lack of confidence

Some people feel that they are inferior compare to their peers, thus they overcompensate by working hard (Young et al., 2003). They feel insecure around others especially those perceived as “not defective”, so they put in more effort to show others they are just as good as they are (that they are worthy) (Gagné, & Deci, 2005). They also fear feedback, specifically criticisms so they strive to present faultless work to avoid them. This lack of confidence in themselves is what lead them to be engrossed in work.

Approval seeking

Building on from the previous point, some people are workaholics to gain the approval and recognition from others. They often believe that they are worthwhile only if others give them approval, or that people will only pay attention to them if they are successful (Young et al., 2003). Some workaholics do not feel good about themselves internally and may seek validation from others in an effort to build their esteem (Kealy et al., 2017).

Tips to manage workaholism and protect your mental health

Identifying you are a workaholic

The first step to achieving a more balanced lifestyle, is to acknowledge that you are a workaholic! When you admit and recognise that you are continuously working, you are able to gain awareness into where you can pull back and spend more time for leisure. If you are finding yourself being described as a workaholic often, as Molly did, pause and ask yourself if this is true. This would enable you to give yourself the permission to ease your workload and spend time for yourself.

Accept that there are things you can’t control

You want your work to be perfect, but how possible is this? Performance exists on a spectrum. Your boss, colleagues and clients may also have a different opinion of your work. Letting go of your need for perfection could calm your nerves. Ask yourself how much more effort and time you are willing to put in to achieve the ideal of perfection. Even though you want to strive for perfection, is it worth the opportunity cost of missing time with your family or sacrifice your physical and mental health?

Use healthier ways to build on your identity

Instead of letting your work achievements define you, figure out what makes you uniquely you. Trying out new activities such as voluntary work, or rock climbing could lead to new passions. Also take time to care for your family and friends. Engaging with them in meaningful conversations also stimulates learning about views on yourself and the world. Remember, your work doesn’t define you, you are more than your achievements at work. Those people that are your ride or dies see you for being you. At the end of the day, they know you have so much more in you than a trophy or an award.

Take a break

Go for a run. Take a nap. Visit the cat café. Binge watch Netflix. Spending time to distress helps relax and recharge the mind. The advantages of taking care of your health and spending time with those you truly care about definitely outweighs the positives of tirelessly working. This is because only when you have a healthy mind and body, can you produce good quality work in the given time frame. If you are constantly ruminating about work and deadlines, your full attention can’t be given to the task at hand. You do not need to feel guilty for taking a break. In fact, you are doing yourself a favour if you do.

Do something that excites you (that is non work related). More balanced is needed in your life. Continue doing your hobby that you’ve put off because of work. Or maybe spend more time with your kids and pets. Let your love for them motivate you to spend more time with them. Besides that, it is important to know your limits so you are aware of when to stop working. Be clear when it’s time to work and time to play. Molly schedules her time such that weekends are spent with family and friends. She also promises herself to stop working by 7pm on weekdays. Furthermore, she plans to go on blind dates on at least one Friday night a month.

Have a more balanced thinking towards your lifestyle, be it work or mistakes. Striving for your dreams and working hard is good, but remember to take care of yourself. Your body and mind are tools for you to achieve your goals. Keep them rested to do your best.

References Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 331-362. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.322

Kealy, D., Sandhu, S., & Ogrodniczuk, J. S. (2017). Looking ahead through a fragile lens: Vulnerable narcissism and the future self. Personality and Mental Health, 11(4), 290-298. doi:10.1002/pmh.1384

Kisi. (2019). 2019 Work–Life Balance Index. https://www.getkisi.com/work-life-balance#table

Malinowska, D., & Tokarz, A. (2014). The structure of workaholism and types of workaholic. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 45(2), 211-222. https://doi.org/10.2478/ppb-2014-0027

Nie, Y., & Sun, H. (2016). Why do workaholics experience depression? A study with Chinese University teachers. Journal of health psychology, 21(10), 2339-2346.

Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner's guide. The Guilford Press.

Categories: Healthy Lifestyle
Janna Lim

About the Author

Janna is currently pursuing her Master's in Guidance and Counselling at James Cook University Singapore. She adopts a developmental approach towards her clients. She also works within her clients' capabilities, and encourages them to achieve a more integrated self.

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