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Putting The Brakes On – What To Do When You Can’t Stop Working

November 28, 2022 - 12 min read

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What is a workaholic?

What is burnout?

What to do when you can't stop working

Forget the grind. Start getting back to real life

Our culture honors hard work. 

From childhood, we’re encouraged to apply ourselves and put in extra effort for greater rewards. As adults, we work long hours and give our all to meet deadlines, earn a higher income, and chase promotions. 

But what happens when your career path feels like a hamster wheel that you can’t get off? Your tireless effort is unending, leaving you exhausted, lonely, and not knowing what to do when you can’t stop working.

There’s a name for people who pursue professional success to the exclusion of their well-being: workaholics.

What is a workaholic?

You might think you aren’t a workaholic, just someone full of ambition and a drive to succeed. And that may be true. But there’s a difference between being passionate about your job and letting it overwhelm your life. 

Research shows that workaholism is a mental health condition like addiction or depression. Workaholics often describe themselves as perfectionists and claim to be merely overworked. But they’re chasing the high that comes from success, compelling them to work incessantly. 

Workaholism can set in as a response to emotional issues that you’re trying to avoid. Initially, excelling at work seems like a clear positive. You may not even be aware of what’s happening. But that constant push to succeed often comes at the expense of your personal life and health.

If you think your work habits may be crossing over into dangerous territory, ask yourself:

  • Are you working late when you don’t need to?
  • Do performance reviews cause you intense anxiety?
  • Are you working to avoid dealing with personal situations or crises at home?
  • Do you skip family gatherings and downtime with friends to work, then find yourself defending your need to work extra hours?
  • Are you present in your relationships, or are they suffering from absences caused by the professional demands you place on yourself?
  • Is your work ever “good enough,” or do you regularly push yourself to the absolute physical and mental limit to achieve?
  • Are you losing sleep, skipping meals, or deprioritizing your health to get more work done?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above questions, these are all signs that you’re working too much and may struggle with workaholism. Here are a few more common behaviors that workaholics exhibit: 

  • Doing more work than is expected of them
  • Hyper-focusing on their job and losing sight of their home responsibilities, hobbies, or relationships
  • Experiencing clashes between their work and home life schedules and privileging work
  • Suffering from fatigue, headaches, insomnia, forgetfulness, and other stress-induced maladies
  • Experiencing a reluctance to admit they might overwork

If you see yourself on this list, you’re displaying symptoms of workaholism — which is serious. The chronic stress you place on yourself to meet these unrealistic expectations often manifests as burnout, hindering your success at work, your relationships, and, ultimately, your health.

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What is burnout?

Burnout happens when stress levels knock your work-life balance off kilter. Without this balance, work-related stress can tax you past the point of endurance or a good night’s sleep. From junior employees starting a new job to senior management members completing a critical project, burnout can affect everyone. 

But workaholics are particularly prone to burnout because their work anxiety is internal, meaning they can’t turn off the need to work, even after a deadline is met. They’re always looking to the next step.  

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Burnout manifests both physically and emotionally in ways easy to dismiss as stress or something else. But someone displaying several of these symptoms might be beyond fatigue.

Physical symptoms

  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Depressed immune system

Mental symptoms

  • Difficulty with concentration and motivation
  • Decreased productivity
  • Irritability with yourself and others
  • Cynical attitude about work
  • Mood swings
  • Losing interest in things that once gave you pleasure
  • Depression and anxiety

If you’re coping with conflicting priorities, a stressful work environment, and a work-life balance that’s out of step, it’s time to seek support.

What to do when you can't stop working

When you’re in the thick of it, overcoming workaholism can seem like an impossible task. But it’s not. Here are six things you can do to help you step off the work treadmill.

1. Re-evaluate your priorities

This is the first step towards recovery. Success feeds your ego, but it’s not everything. If you wish to live a well-rounded, fulfilling life, you need to understand how to integrate your job with the rest of your priorities  — relationships, physical and mental health, and spiritual matters.

Until you can do this, you’ll find it difficult to set boundaries with clarity that respect both your life as a worker and a human being and establish realistic and nurturing expectations. Decide what your dream life looks like — not just your dream job.

2. Decide what matters each moment

There will always be items on your to-do list, but there might not always be time to spend with those you love or pursue your hobbies. Figure out what relationships, events, and activities are essential for you.

Then, work to safeguard those moments by setting hard and fast limits on work that keep your attention focused where it belongs. Your co-workers won’t remember that you took time out to answer an email during a birthday party, but your family members will.

3. Prioritize self-care

Self-care isn’t simply burning candles and taking hot baths. It’s about giving your mind and body time and space to recover and re-energize from the daily hustle. It’s ensuring you’re eating right and getting enough rest and exercise.

Exploring hobbies and activities far removed from routine allows your brain to switch off and renew itself, giving you more energy and focus for both home and work.

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4. Stay in the moment

We’re all familiar with the feeling of running around like a chicken with your head cut off. That’s because you can only focus on so many things in a day. Taking a few moments to stay grounded and clear your mind helps you direct your attention to the essentials and make better decisions about spending your time. This practice is known as mindfulness, and it helps you retain your focus on what you deem essential.

5. Recognize you can’t do it alone

People suffering from workaholism need support, as would anyone else addressing a mental health concern. Talk to your manager and co-workers about what’s happening and work with them to create clear and reasonable performance expectations.

You may need to make yourself less available during weekends or work from home one day a week, but your team can help you set clear expectations to ease your mental burden. These boundaries on your time and workload will help you find a better balance.

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6. Keep your mind active

Enjoyable pastimes are ways to keep your mind engaged and out of work mode at the end of the day. Devoting your energy to learning something new is a great way to be productive without adding strain. Choose a fun activity to provide a distraction in your free time and keep you from thinking and worrying about your workday. These are especially important at the beginning of the recovery period when you don’t know what to do with yourself.

All these suggestions are tools for you to use to help you gain control over your workaholic tendencies. But they might not be enough. If these methods aren’t working for you, consider consulting a mental health professional to help you resolve the underlying issues driving you to overwork. They can teach you to set boundaries, provide check-ins for accountability, and work with you to develop strategies to deal with your professional stressors.

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Forget the grind. Start getting back to real life

Your professional life offers you opportunities for development and fulfillment that you may not find elsewhere. But if it takes over your life — to the detriment of your loved ones and you — it’s time for a change. Pulling back from professional demands and readjusting expectations can require support.

Lean on your loved ones as you get back in touch with your priorities and devote that energy to other areas of your life. You won’t perform your best at work if you aren’t taking care of yourself — and there’s more to life than a stellar performance review. Your work-life balance needs to be exactly that: balanced.

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Published November 28, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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