Is Work an Addiction? Breaking the Cycle of Overwork and Overwhelm

Firmly ingrained in our culture is this expectation that we need to work ourselves to a point of exhaustion and burnout. The pressure is there both internally and externally to constantly prove our self-worth. The unconscious belief is that being busy all the time and not taking time off means you are successful, even a workplace hero. And the people who push themselves the hardest are still rewarded in the workplace, making the behaviour even more socially acceptable.

But why are we wired this way? Tony Schwartz and Eric Severson in a recent HBR article suggest that over-working is a decoy that helps us to avoid feelings of anxiety, boredom, or inadequacy. And it doesn’t matter whether you enjoy your work or not, research shows people would rather be overwhelmed and overworked to escape these feelings.

Workaholism, also called work addiction, is defined as a compulsive desire to work excessive hours beyond workplace or financial requirements to the exclusion of other activities in life. It is highly detrimental to our mental and physical health. A 2021 World Health Organization study found that working 55 or more hours per week – compared to 35-40 hours – is associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease.

The irony is that putting in long continuous hours without breaks or rest is having a negative effect on productivity. Over-working lessens the ability to be engaged and creative and will eventually lead to burnout.

Imagine! We have come to a place in our society where we need to re-learn how to rest! So, what can be done to break this cycle?

The good news is employers are starting to recognize this as a major issue. Aon’s Global Wellbeing Survey Report 2022-2023 tells us that employers are now putting more focus on investing in well-being and integrating it into the business strategy and culture of their organizations. And that is paying dividends, as The Wellness Report (TWR) 2022 from Manulife showed that companies with better cultures (the 3 organizations at the top of their list) saw more than 9 days more productivity for each employee when compared to all other organizations they surveyed. Schwartz and Severson provide a couple of examples of companies who are implementing cultural changes that focus on employee well-being and in turn, better productivity:

  • Gap Inc. brought in a “Results Only” work environment focusing on results, not hours.
  • Neiman Marcus developed a company-wide initiative to change minds about getting more rest to be more productive.

Even if your organization is taking steps to break the cycle of overwork, there is a lot you can do personally to manage stress and overwhelm. Here are a few ideas:

  • Self-Awareness and Mindfulness – Take notice of how you feel mentally and physically after working too long without breaks. How does your body feel? Is it affecting your mood, and how you interact with friends and family? It’s easy to discount how you feel, but change can only start with awareness that there is a problem.
  • Prioritize Exercise & Sleep – It’s a vicious cycle because often sleep is disrupted when we sit all day and work too hard and long. Try to focus on 7+ hours of sleep, and adding some physical movement whether it be walking, gardening, sports, or yoga—just get moving!
  • Do What You Love – Pick an activity or hobby that is unrelated to your work. Make a commitment and schedule it in your calendar. This can include time with family and loved ones, playing a sport, music, meditation or whatever it is you love to do.

What will you do today to break the cycle of overwork and overwhelm?

If you’re looking for some concrete ideas on mindfulness at work for you and those you lead, join us at the upcoming BCalm Mindfulness Conference: How to Create A Mindful Workplace (and why you should!) this November in Victoria, BC. We are bringing in experts from as far as the Netherlands to share their perspectives and experience on mindful leadership and creating mindful cultures at work.

Deborah Connors

Deborah Connors teaches leaders to radically shift culture so that people can flourish. She is an engaging speaker, storyteller, author and coach.

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