For many of us, work is more than just a way to pay the bills. It’s a big part of our identity, perhaps the foundation of our social life, and the major way we use our time. With workdays growing longer, and the separation between work and personal life growing ever thinner, it’s increasingly hard to tell if we’re just doing what we need to do, or letting work take over our lives completely.
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Take, for example, “Jim” in Dorie Clark’s recent post on Harvard Business Review’s Blog Network. A successful professional, Jim had devoted so much of his time to a contract with a big client that he had completely neglected his health and personal life. He stayed at work until 10 p.m. each day, gained 30 pounds, and started smoking.
“It wasn’t about money,” Clark writes. “We were standing in the middle of his vacation home, enjoying prime mountain views. Business was booming; he only wished it were possible to spend more time up here at his dream home, and perhaps to start dating and meet someone. But, of course, it was possible. For some reason, he was choosing not to — and Jim’s not the only one.”
Clark doesn’t frame Jim’s story as an addiction narrative. Instead, she stresses the immediate gratification of work, as compared to the long-term gains offered by family life, for example. In addition, she points out, fear of loss is a stronger motivator than desire for gain — in other words, if we’re afraid to lose our job, we’ll work harder than we might if we had a promotion in our crosshairs.
What’s the Difference Between Working Hard and Being a Workaholic?
“It’s important to understand the context,” says Edmund Neuhaus, PhD, tells WebMD. Neuhaus is the director of the Behavioral Health Partial Hospital Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. “If you’re working to the exclusion of your family, your marriage, other relationships, and your life is out of balance, or your physical health is out of balance — when work takes an exclusive priority to everything else, that’s the more extreme end of the spectrum where it becomes a problem.”
By that definition, Clark’s friend Jim is definitely a workaholic. But perhaps an even better definition is the one given to WebMD by Bryan E. Robinson, PhD, author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them:
“I always say that the difference between someone who’s a true workaholic and someone who’s just a hard worker is that the workaholic is on the ski slopes dreaming about being back at work, and the hard worker is in the office dreaming about being on the ski slope.”
How Can You Tell If You’re a Workaholic?
A few signs that things have gotten out of control include:
1. Neglecting your personal life for long periods of time. WebMD gives the example of the parent who never gets to go to their child’s school events.
2. Never taking time off, either on the weekends or for a real vacation.
3. Energetic and competitive, but also consumed with self-doubt. (Which they allay by overworking, in order to get approval from their bosses and colleagues.)
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