Under constant pressure to perform, your job can easily become the dominant force in your life. You’ve seen them before with your own eyes. You could be one yourself: a lunch pail worker. You plop down and chain yourself to the desk, sandwich in a lunch box for the duration of a 10 or 12-hour workday. You stare at your screen, eat at your desk and rarely take a break or speak to a colleague. You get soused from adrenaline-charged binge working that throws you into a cycle of frantic toiling around the clock, hurrying and rushing, and multitasking to reach the finish line. I’m speaking to half of you in the work force—48% to be exact, according to a survey by the market research firm OnePoll—who consider yourself to be a workaholic. Chances are, you wear the label as a badge of honor. You might think being the first to arrive and last to leave the office is something to be proud of or that it elevates you in the eyes of corporate honchos.
Hold On, Not So Fast
A look beneath the facade of overworking reveals a disturbing picture. In the throes of my own work addiction, I needed my work—and hid it from others—the way my alcoholic father needed and hid his bourbon. And just as a child I tried to control my father’s drinking by pouring out his booze and refilling the bottle with vinegar, the people who loved me pleaded and tore their hair out trying to keep me from working all the time. My recovery from work addiction led me to conduct the first studies on workaholism and the family at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. My findings show that if you’re a workaholic, you’re at greater risk for marital estrangement and 40% more likely to divorce that the average couple. Your children (if you have them) suffer, too, in some cases even more than children of alcoholics. Children of workaholics have higher depression and anxiety and are less self-assured. And your long hours impair your mental and physical health, putting you at greater risk than the average laborer of heart attack, burnout and a truncated career trajectory. Worst of all, work addiction kills.
In the United States, we don’t have a name for this silent killer. But in Japan— where ten thousand workers a year keel over at their desks from stroke or heart attack after putting in sixty-to-seventy hour workweeks—it is known as Karoshi (death from overwork). My relationship with work was the central connection of my life, as compelling as the connection an addict has with booze or cocaine. I didn’t need drugs because my bloodstream manufactured its own crystal meth. I moaned about things moving too slowly, shaking my fist at the clock because of the shortage of time. I overloaded myself with more job tasks and unrealistic deadlines than I could possibly complete, throwing all-nighters sometimes sleeping off a work binge in my clothes. I couldn’t stop thinking about, talking about or engaging in work.
Quiz: Are You Chained to the Desk?
I developed the WART (Work Addiction Risk Test) for you to rate your work habits using the scale of 1: never true, 2: sometimes true, 3: often true, or 4: always true. Put the number that best describes you in the blank beside the statement. Then add the numbers for your total score.
_____1. I seem to be in a hurry racing against deadlines.
_____2. I stay busy with many irons in the fires.
_____3. I’m a multi-tasker and engage in simultaneous activities such as eating lunch, returning emails and talking on the phone.
_____4. I over commit myself by biting off more than I can chew.
_____5. I feel guilty when I’m not working on something.
_____6. I’m still working after my coworkers have called it quits.
_____7. It’s hard to unplug and relax when I’m not working—even on vacation.
_____8. I spend more time working than connecting with loved ones and friends or enjoying hobbies or leisure activities.
8-16: Green Light. You’re a hard worker with good work/life balance.
17-24: Yellow Light. You’re mildly workaholic. You tend to work to the exclusion of what’s important to you, but with modifications you can find balance and prevent burnout.
25-32: Red Light. You’re a workaholic at risk for burnout, health issues and relationship problems.
Ten Tips for Yellow and Red Lighters
1. Work Mindfully. Make a conscious effort to toil in the present moment as much as possible instead of regretting past mistakes or worrying about future projects. Be mindful of your coworkers, and consider eating, walking and driving slower.
2. Find Balance. Make sure you balance your days with nutritious food, regular exercise and ample sleep.
3. Avoid Multitasking. Studies show that multitasking isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, that workers who focus on one task at a time are calmer and more effective and productive.
4. Set Boundaries. Refuse to commit to more projects when you’re already overloaded. Tell yourself there’s a limit to what you can do and see this practice as a strength, not a weakness.
5. Develop Self-Compassion. Instead of attacking yourself when you forget, make a mistake, or fail at a task, shower yourself with compassion. Practice pep talks and treat yourself with the same nurturing support and loving-kindness you give to loved ones.
6. Come Up for Air. Mother Nature didn’t design your body to be desk-bound for long periods of time. Put time cushions between appointments, take time to breathe, eat a snack, or stretch and move around.
7. Unplug. Set aside time for self-care. Just five or ten minutes a day can make a big difference in lowering your stress and raising your energy level. Indulge yourself with a nap, brief walk in nature, or meditation to take your mind off red alert.
8. Block Off Time for Relationships. Leave space in your schedule to spend time with coworkers, friends and family. Take days off and vacations where you unwind and have fun.
9. Gain Deeper Insight. Look beneath your addiction to understand why you require yourself to overwork. And why that sanctuary is necessary for the uncertainties of living fully in the present.
10. Get Outside Help. If you can’t stop overworking on your own, many resources are available to help: professional counseling, support groups, and Workaholics Anonymous online meetings (www.workaholics-anonymous), where members work the Twelve Steps.
Karoshi Isn’t a Retirement Plan
I’m one of the lucky ones. I was able to break out of the work fog and get my life back on track. Hopefully, these tips will prevent Karoshi from becoming your retirement plan, and you will be around to enjoy doing the things you want to do with the important people in your life.