Workaholism is known as the best-dressed and least-recognized addiction. Over the last 20 years I have conducted research and collected hundreds of cases from self-described workaholics. Out of these studies emerged 10 telltale signs. All ten red flags are not present in every case, and they may appear in various configurations in different employees. But they are surefire indicators to help you recognize if the label fits.
- Hurrying. Nothing moves fast enough. If you’re a workaholic, you feel compelled to multi-task. Having many things happening at once and engaging in two or three tasks simultaneously gives you the sense that you’re accomplishing more, plus it gives you an adrenaline rush. Performing only one activity at a time feels unproductive and boring. Typically, you schedule back-to-back appointments and don’t give yourself time to get from one to the next, usually running late. Perhaps you even unwittingly create mini crises such as when you flip out over a shortage of paper clips or a balky computer system.
- Control. When you’re a workaholic, you fear that delegating tasks or asking for help will be perceived by colleagues as signs of weakness or incompetence. So you don’t delegate and hoard the workload. But if you do “take the risk to delegate,” and a project is out of your hands, you feel a loss of control. You can’t and won’t ask for help. You tend to overplan, over organize and go overboard—all of which inhibit spontaneity and flexibility. So tasks become either your way or the highway.
- Perfectionism. Doing everything perfectly is the hallmark of workaholism. It’s tough for you to to accomplish one goal without laying the groundwork for another project. You’re difficult to work for and with. You narrow your life to only those things at which you can excel, judging yourself and others unmercifully. Your common refrain is, “If you want something done right, do it yourself” or “If I do it, I know it’s been done the want it should be done.” Along with these superhuman standards, failure and anger for missing the mark are constant companions.
- Relationship Difficulty. True workaholics are no-shows at a child’s recital or soccer game because work calls. You have a pattern of forgetting, ignoring or minimizing the importance of family rituals and celebrations—birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. Even when you make a reunion or birthday party, your work cell phone ushers you into the event. You keep your ear attuned to your electronic devices so that you don’t miss something at work. You have trouble concentrating because your mind is back at the office. Wedded to work, your devices appear to be more important than family and friends. This is called work infidelity.
- Work binges. Many workaholics have rumination and anxiety until a project is completed. If this is you, chances are you go into what many describe as an altered state, avoiding sleep, missing meals, working around the clock to finish a project. Most of us have worked overtime to meet deadlines. But if you’re a workaholic, you strangle yourself with unrealistic deadlines and work binges sometimes sleeping in your clothes like an alcoholic sleeping off an alcoholic binge. You would rather work nonstop for days on end than spread tasks out over a reasonable time frame. In extreme cases, you might mimic the alcoholic who stashes booze wherever he or she goes. Instead of hiding your booze, you hide a laptop or cell phone in a secret place to keep loved ones from complaining. Many workaholics sneak their work, much like an alcoholic sneaking a drink, when their concerned complainers are out of earshot.
- Inability to relax. If you’re a workaholic, you believe relaxing or having fun are frivolous wastes of time because you have nothing to show for them. “Don’t just sit there, do something” is your mantra. This symptom can show up when you feel guilty and useless whenever you are doing something that doesn’t produce results. If you’re exercising, cleaning or doing a job-related activity, you feel calm. But if you’re hanging out with friends, partner or kids, you feel restless and irritable. This is called withdrawal. You look down your nose at colleagues who take vacations or leave early. And you become so restless that you turn hobbies and recreation into productivity or money-making ventures.
- Brownouts. Work trances or brownouts are comparable to alcoholic blackouts. During a work trance, you have memory lapses during long conversations because you’re preoccupied with work. You forget or don’t recall commitments or agreements made because you’re tuned out of the here and now. Driving while working (DWW) mentally can cause you to drive through stop signs or past designated points on your route. Busily focusing on that big presentation, you might have trouble paying attention to the road or fully engaging in conversations. People close to you complain that you’re off somewhere else and you’re not emotionally present with them.
- Impatience and irritability. Since time is your most prized commodity as a workaholic, you hate to wait. You’ll try almost anything to get to the front of the line at the grocery store, restaurant or movie. You’re easy to spot at the doctor’s office—the one hypnotically gazing into a smart phone or with an open laptop or pad of paper and a fast-scribbling pen. In the long run, your impatience results in impulsivity and premature decisions. You often start projects without gathering all the facts. You make avoidable mistakes because you rush and bypass research.
- Self-inadequacy. If you’re a workaholic, work promises to fill the hours and provide you purpose and meaning. And the approval of others feeds your ego. But as soon as a project is done, the emptiness and unrest return. Chances are, the infrequent times when you feel good about yourself is when you’re producing “things.” You seek self-worth and value through accomplishments. Your sense of inadequacy causes you to emphasize production with concrete results that give you a temporary high and feeling of value. You tend to aggravate the inadequacy with negative self-talk, name calling and put-downs.
- Self-neglect. If you’re a workaholic, gobble, gulp and go are at the top of your list, and self-care is at the bottom. You pay little attention to your physical condition, and good nutrition, exercise and rest are no-shows in your life. When coping mechanisms such as chain-smoking, Red Bulls and junk food are added to the picture, your health is highly compromised. Even when you have headaches or body pain, you learn to ignore it in favor of completing the more important project at hand. These patterns can result in heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, immune system compromise—even death.
A Final Word
Now that you know the tell-tale signs of work addiction if one or more sound like you, consider developing a self-care plan so you can make changes that bring more balance for a fuller life.