Being passionate about your work is fantastic.
Feeling excited to rush into the office, bubbling over with ideas, and wanting to go the extra mile to make your employers (or your own company) a success? Totally awesome.
But there’s a fine line between being “wildly passionate” and being a total workaholic.
Ultimately, it all comes down to one question:
What’s driving your desire to work, work, and work some more?
If you’re driven by excitement, passion, enthusiasm, and a dash of healthy concern (like the need to pay your bills or student loans)—that’s all terrific.
But if you’re driven by a sense of emptiness, a yearning for constant validation, or paralyzing fear? That’s less so.
Not quite sure? Here are seven questions to help you take an honest look at why you work so darn hard—and see if you might be a workaholic.
1. Do I work long hours because I’m afraid that if I don’t, I won’t achieve my goals—and then people will think I’m a failure?
Typically, these types of fears suggest that work has become a way to gain others’ approval and validation.
In this situation, work becomes like an addictive drug that is used to affirm your value and self-worth. (“When I achieve X, then I’ll feel good about myself.”) Unfortunately, like any addictive drug, you’re always chasing your next hit—and you’re never fully satisfied by anything you do, no matter how much, or how hard, you work. No fun.
2. Do I feel anxious or uneasy when I’m not working?
Work is a big part of your life, and it’s a big part of your identity, too. But when work becomes your entire identity—that’s a problem.
If you don’t feel “right” unless you’re entrenched in a project, that could be a sign that your relationship with work is a little out of whack.
Think of it this way: If you said to a friend, “I just don’t feel OK unless I’m spending time with my boyfriend! If we’re apart, even for an hour, I feel super anxious. I just have to check in…”
Your friend would probably say, “Um, that sounds like a totally unhealthy relationship.” And she’d be right!
3. Do I take work with me on vacation? Am I always checking in because I’m scared I’ll miss something important?
I don’t see anything wrong with checking one’s email now and then while on vacation.
But if you’re the kind of person who is super-glued to your screen, missing the gorgeous tropical sunset that’s happening right before your eyes, or ignoring your friends and family in favor of “just one more email”—that’s a red flag.
If you’re terrified of “missing something important” while you’re away, that’s another sign that your relationship with work needs some love. After all: Who wants to live and work in a constant state of fear?
4. Do I think about work even when I’m not working—because I’m afraid that if I don’t, then things won’t get handled properly and everything will fall apart?
It’s one thing to get a brilliant idea because you happen to be thinking about a work while you’re running or taking a shower.
It’s one thing to think about work while you’re driving home, because you’re so darn excited about your latest project.
But it’s another thing to anxiously chew over your work because you’re afraid that things are going to get messed up in your absence. That’s a signal that your work is being driven by fear, not joy.
5. Do I work even when I’m sick? Am I terrified to take time off because I’ll get so behind—or because people will think I’m slacking off?
Far too many people go to work when they’re sick, and it hurts more than just your own health.
Again, the question comes down to your motivation—what’s driving you to head into the office, packing a super-sized box of Kleenex?
Are you working because there’s a make-or-break project that needs to get done, and you don’t want to let your colleagues down—or are you working just because you need their approval, or you’re afraid of what might happen if you (gasp!) unplug to get well?
6. Do I make myself available to colleagues during non-work hours, all the time? Do I keep my phone and other gadgets with me around the clock?
As John De Graaf reports in this Marketplace piece: “We are just like cellphones and iPads—we have to be recharged on a regular basis.”
He also notes: “Women who don't take regular vacations are anywhere from two to eight times more likely to suffer from depression, and have a 50 percent higher chance of heart disease.”
In other words, unplugging and taking time to recharge is not optional—it’s essential. If you’re refusing to give yourself any time off, that’s potentially self-destructive.
7. Do I have trouble delegating because I’m afraid that no one can meet my standards—so I always end up doing more than my share of the work?
Workaholics often consider themselves to be indispensable and have unrealistic expectations of themselves and those with whom they work. They bite off more than they can chew and live in a constant state of behind-ness.
Again, the primary red flag to watch out for is fear. Fear of not really being needed, after all. Fear of being perceived as weak or lazy. Fear of not receiving the validation you so desperately crave. Fear of being alone, with your thoughts!
If you’re driven by those kinds of fears, that’s a sign that your relationship with work needs some TLC.
So, how can workaholics break the cycle?
It all starts by challenging some of the fears that are driving you to work yourself to the bone.
And again, I want to clarify:
There’s a difference between healthy concern (think: “I don’t want to get fired, because I need to feed my family”) versus unhealthy fear (think: “If I don’t work overtime, every single weekend, for no extra pay—they’re all going to think I’m lazy and useless!”)
Confront your fears, head on, as uncomfortable as it may be.
Then, look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud:
From now on, I will work because I’m passionate about what I do—not because I’m afraid of what might happen, or what I might feel, if I rest.
I do not need to be afraid to unplug and take care of myself.
I know that self-care is non-negotiable—and in fact, it will make me better at the work that I do.
Creating a healthy and balanced relationship with your work, well, might take some work.
But it’s absolutely possible.
And like the old cliché goes: Recognizing that you might have a problem is always the first step.
Do you consider yourself to be a workaholic? How do you get yourself back into balance, when you’re feeling the urge to work, work, and work?