Workaholic or Working Long Hours?

The Harvard Business Review recently reported on a study comparing the health impacts of workaholics vs. people who simply work a lot of hours. (i.e. any professional or entrepreneur) The term workaholic was coined in 1971 by the psychologist Wayne E. Oates, who defined it as “an uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” According to HBR, workaholics are characterized by having an inner compulsive drive to work hard, thinking about work constantly, and feeling guilty and restless when they are not working. It is possible to work long hours without being obsessed with work, and it is possible to be obsessed with work but only work 35 hours a week.

For many of us, needing to work long hours is less a matter of inner compulsion, and more driven by externals like productivity metrics, and the realities of being a professional or entrepreneur today. That said, the HBR study brings up an important point: developing the capacity to ‘turn off work’ when you aren’t working is a critical skill. Some come by this skill naturally, while others of us have to learn and practice it. Or, in my case – in need of a support group! Here are a few ideas:

1. Catch Yourself: Often we get so used to thinking about work issues that we hardly realize that we are obsessing about something. Simply becoming more aware will help you catch this pattern sooner, which positions you to do something about it. Like….again, support group:)

2. Know Yourself: Some people turn off work by doing a ‘mindless’ activity like watching TV or solitary exercise. Others find it more helpful to engage in an activity that requires thinking or attention (i.e. playing in a tennis league or Soduko). Know what helps you turn off work.

3.Compartmentalize: You have to be good at compartmentalizing. If you are stewing about a problem when you should be relaxing, set a time in the future when you are going to think about it. Knowing you have made an appointment to think about the issue may help you stop thinking about it in the moment. This is a tough one to control. You may need to borrow the ear of a trusted friend or family member listen and give feedback.

4. Develop a Ritual: Create some kind of habit that helps you transition from work mode to home responsibilities or relaxing mode. If you are doing work at home, close the computer or go to a different space when shifting out of work mode. On the drive home, use a landmark to remind yourself to transition from work mode. I use the lake I pass on the way home…..dogs walking, people running and the sun (hopefully…if it’s not snowing) sparkling on the water.

5. Connect with Others: If you have young children at home, they may automatically demand your attention. If not, make a call, take a walk, or intentionally be with another person. Once in that person’s presence, then truly focus on that person. Another super difficult thing for me to do…..I will cheat and peek at my phone or make some lame excuse so I can quickly check emails:(

What helps you transition out of work mode? How often do you put your phone away?


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