Whether you’ve ever battled alcoholism, sex addiction or gambling, the behaviours we adopt are very good at getting in the way of our success and ability to lead a thriving life. An addictive behaviour that’s causing damage to our mental and physical wellbeing is overworking.

How many hours are you working each day? If you’re regularly doing more than 55-60 hours a week, it’s too much. There was a reason why the working week was set at around 40 hours. It’s because as humans we’re not designed to work effectively for longer. Those extended work hours are counterproductive and exhausting.

Why we become addicted to work

The level of burnout and mental mood disorders at work has been rising rapidly, exacerbated by Covid. But the underlying problem was present long before we experienced the global pandemic.

A culture of expectation has evolved, where to be seen as committed, hard-working, a high achiever, high performer and successful you would always go the extra distance, working harder and for longer than everyone else. If you’re climbing the corporate ladder, it’s expected you won’t complain about being asked to come in early, stay late, or take home the additional work to finish during the evening or weekend.

It’s expected that you’ll have to make sacrifices. You won’t be able to attend your children’s concert, drama production, sport’s day, speech day or graduation ceremony. You will have to pull out (again) from that long arranged social event, long weekend away with your partner, family holiday or anniversary dinner. Even if you can go, you’ll still have your work mobile phone and laptop in case you need to be contacted, or an urgent meeting requiring your presence is needed. The worst thing about work addiction is that it is socially sanctioned.

Work addiction is harmful

Work addiction can lead to anxiety, depression, panic disorder, burnout, insomnia, cardiovascular disease (with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke) and suicide.

Work is important for providing us a salary to pay the bills and keep a roof over our head. But it was never intended to shorten our life.

Who is at risk?

It’s estimated between 7-10% of the population are addicted to their work.

  • For some, work is an escape from family troubles or relationship difficulties.
  • For some, finances are tight and working three jobs is the only way to keep your head above water.
  • For others, it’s necessary because you’re self-employed. You can’t afford to say no to potential work because you don’t know when the next job will come in.
  • Or you’re ambitious, keen to make a mark for yourself and be known as THE person to go to in your particular field.
  • Or your boss is an unreasonable so-and-so who doesn’t want to hear your story that your workload is too high. His response being, “if you don’t want the work, I’ll give it to someone who does.”

What about those who love their work so much because they see it as their passion and vocation. They would rather work all the time because it means so much and is their world. This unbalanced approach to life means there is precious little left over for any other important facets of life that make us interesting.

Working in high-stress, high-workload environments adds significantly to stress levels. Add in on top the caring, empathetic, put everyone else’s needs before yours, being of service attitude and you have the perfect recipe for work addiction and relationship discord.

How to overcome your work addiction

Like any addiction you’ve got to start with the self-awareness that too much work is harmful and secondly, you’re ready to do something about it.

My work is important

Of course it is. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have been spending so much time doing it. But is it a form of escape from other worries or a pure addiction?

The former could be a sign you’re avoiding resolving those other problems or are unable to resolve them. The latter suggests you’ve created a belief around being indispensable, that others can’t do the same work to your high standards or that the business will crater if you’re not there.

Switching off

If you’re constantly thinking about work when awake and during the night, it’s hard to switch off and relax. This requires:

  1. Giving yourself permission to put in place some boundaries around start and finish times and holding yourself accountable to them.
  • Talking to your family, your colleagues and your boss about doing the work required that you’re contracted to do, to get assistance if it’s too much and get better at taking time off regularly every day – for that 5–10-minute breather, every week – a few hours just for you, every quarter take a long weekend with your partner and don’t forget to take your holidays when they are due.
  • Change your relationship with your technology. It’s time to switch off from the mobile phone and laptop when you are not required i.e., during dinner or after a certain time in the evening. Switching off from your technology in this way has been shown to reduce stress levels and lower blood pressure.

I don’t have anything else that I enjoy

Take up a hobby or sport. This is a useful distraction strategy. Putting aside the usual excuses of time poverty or fatigue and investing in something you can do each week for a set time, that you can enjoy and look forward to is a highly effective way of breaking the non-stop work habit. Whether it’s a sport, something creative or dance, this is your opportunity to learn a new skill or hobby that will become a positive part of your life.

I don’t have time

Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t, but our sense of “not enough time” is commonly an illusion. Ask yourself what is the potential consequence of not doing something to address your work addiction beyond the risk of burnout, heart disease and mental illness?

How leaders can keep their employees healthy & mentally well

1. Manage expectations

Lead by example to show you value boundaries, rest and self-care. Share the message that overwork is NOT expected, condoned or encouraged to start to shift the pendulum towards reasonable work hours that enable employees to work to their best, more productive and effective.

2. Encourage conversation

By making it normal, regular, and safe to speak up, it becomes easier to share true feelings. Asking for help can be very challenging. If you know you will be heard, not judged and offered support, can make all the difference and potentially reduce your risk of burnout or mental illness.

3. Keep listening and asking

With so much change and adaptation required, it’s vital as a leader to keep your ears open to hear what is being shared. What additional support can the business provide to allow the flexibility needed for everyone to work to their best?

If too many zoom calls are taking a toll, how else can meetings and check-ins be better managed? How can a more humanistic approach be adopted for health and wellbeing, integrating the best of what the science has shown to keep us well and thriving?

Work addiction is a modern scourge and needs to be taken seriously. In Japan death from overwork is known as karoshi. Unofficially 20,000 Japanese workers died from karoshi in 2017 and around 600,000 people in China. Australia doesn’t collect statistics on stress related deaths. But how many people do you know who have had a heart attack, stroke, burnt out or quit their job due to high stress? Work is a big part of our lives. It can be enormously rewarding and worthwhile but we need to avoid becoming addicted.