Author: Alistair Cox, Chief Executive, Hays
Do you put more time and effort into your work life than your personal life? Are you always the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave? Do you work every weekend, and never seem to quite manage to take your full quota of holiday entitlement? Do you compulsively check your work emails at all hours of the day and night? Do you take pride in out-working others? If so, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve crossed the line between simply being a hard worker, to being addicted to your work. It’s time to face facts: you’re a workaholic.
Still not convinced? Perhaps this quote from psychotherapist Bryan Robinson will help you see things a little more clearly: “A workaholic is someone who's on the ski slopes dreaming about being back at work. A healthy worker is at work, dreaming about being on the ski slopes.” In the latter case, whilst their work is important to them, and something they derive fulfilment and purpose from, it doesn’t completely define who they are as a person. They work to live, not vice versa.
The good and bad sides of workaholism
For some of you reading this, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Surely, we want people working in our businesses who are one hundred per cent committed and focused on helping us achieve great things? Of course we do, but there are other ways to achieve this than encouraging our employees to believe that work is everything.
In the short term, some would argue that a degree of workaholism is a good thing – after all, employees are engaged, productive and are helping you achieve your goals. But, in the long run, this kind of obsession is unsustainable and destructive, leading to ‘over commitment and under achievement’, and an increased likelihood that burnout will rear its ugly head.
Is the world of work facilitating workaholism?
Even if you consider yourself to have a balanced, healthy approach to work, it’s becoming more likely than ever that a significant proportion of your team don’t. And that’s a problem - both for them, and for you.
We all know that workaholism is nothing new, however some would argue that it is becoming more common – it’s even been labelled the 21st century addiction. In fact, recent studies have found that one in 10 employees in both the UK and the US are addicted to work. These statistics aren’t surprising at all to me, and I’m sure they’re aren’t to you either.
What is leading us to become obsessed with work? Simply put, I think it’s the world we live and work in. In my mind, it facilitates and feeds our addiction in many different, but relatable ways:
- Being insanely busy is seen as a badge of honour: I’m willing to bet that the last time someone asked you how you are, you answered with “I’m great thanks, just very busy”. In today’s world of work, being busy is almost perceived as a badge of honour, a state of being that somehow proves our worth to the world. After all, if you’re not busy, surely, you’re not in demand? This mindset leads us to put unrealistic demands on ourselves, and our time.
- Technology means we can work, all the time, from anywhere: This naturally causes us to develop an unhealthy relationship to our work, meaning it’s taking up more and more of our precious ‘leisure’ time - three in 10 employees work whilst on holiday, 26 per cent of work is done outside of normal working hours, 33 per cent of salaried workers say they work at the weekend. The culmination of this means that the lines between our work and personal lives are becoming increasingly blurred and our work is starting to form a larger proportion of our identities.
- A growing fear of being replaced: In today’s world of work, the fear of being replaced (either by a robot or by a human who we perceive to be more talented and harder working than us) is all too real. To counteract this feeling of insecurity, we feel we need to work longer than anyone else, be more committed than anyone else and achieve more than anyone else. If we manage to do all of these things, surely, the risk that we will be replaced will be significantly diminished? But the problem is, the need to do all of these things never stops and neither does the pressure we place on ourselves.
- We live our lives at one hundred miles an hour: As journalist Carl Hornore says in his TED Talk, “…we live in a world stuck in fast-forward, a world obsessed with speed.” Everything we do at work can sometimes feel like a race against time. Every time we achieve something, we have very little time to revel in the glory before it’s on to the next project. It’s like we’re on a relentless hamster wheel – one we can’t (and often refuse to) get off. For many, life has turned into a never-ending to do list, and one we need to complete at lightning speed.
Are younger generations more at risk of workaholism?
No one is immune to the impact that these forces have on us – workaholism and the burnout that follows doesn’t discriminate between roles, seniority or personal circumstances. However, many commentators argue that it could in fact be the ‘younger’ generations, those aged between 23 and 38, who are most at risk of developing an addiction to work, and thus are more prone to burning out.
Some commentators argue that this is because they have other, unique forces to contend with, forces that are further facilitating and feeding their addiction to work. Aside from factors such as mounting student debt, and pressure from parents (and themselves) to overachieve, which I believe are playing a part, other commentators have uncovered a few other interesting forces:
- An enforced #ThankGodItsMonday mentality: In her New York Times article, ‘Why are young people pretending to love work?’, Journalist Erin Griffith says that this generation have let their lifestyles be dictated by what she calls ‘performative workaholism’ and are victims to the ‘hustle culture’. As such, they feel an innate pressure not just to work long hours, but also to love what they do – and, also to constantly promote this love across their personal social media channels. They feel they need to be seen to look forward to coming into work after the weekend, hence the trending hashtag, #ThankGodItsMonday. This type of enforced expectation only serves to feed an unhealthy, unbalanced approach to work. Griffith says: “In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers.”
- The need to make a difference in the world: Research shows that this generation wants to make a difference in the world somehow, and they want to work for organisations that will help them do that. In fact, according to this World Economic Forum article, “40% of young people think sense of purpose/impact on society is one of the most important criteria when considering a career opportunity.” Whilst this generation undoubtedly strive to find purpose in their work, it could be argued that this level of commitment could mean they are more likely to put unnecessary pressure on themselves. As a result, they worker longer and longer hours – self-reinforcing obsessive thoughts and behaviours in their minds. In fact, one London Evening Standard article stated that, “Young Londoners are increasingly finding community and purpose in their jobs while fewer are identifying as religious.” Is work becoming the new religion for this generation of workers?
- The pressure of social media: In her Buzzfeed article, ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’, Reporter Anne Helen Petersen states, “ I find that millennials are far less jealous of objects or belongings on social media than the holistic experiences represented there, the sort of thing that prompts people to comment, I want your life… The social media feed — and Instagram in particular — is thus evidence of the fruits of hard, rewarding labour and the labour itself.” Social media makes it easier than ever to compare your life to the lives of your peers, and if you perceive your life doesn’t compare, surely you need to work harder to get to where you want to be?
Whilst these points are all valid, I would argue that some of them have the potential to negatively impact all of us, regardless of our age. And, as the world of work evolves further, many more will inevitably be created – feeding the work addictions of future generations to come.
So, for the sake of both parties, we, as leaders, need to start restoring some sense of balance. So, what can we do to help our employees develop a more positive, balanced and healthy relationship with their work, and ultimately play our part in stopping this worrying trend in its tracks?
Six ways to help your employees keep their workaholic tendencies in check
Research by Deloitte found that a staggering 70 per cent of employees felt their employers weren’t doing enough to tackle burnout. Why is this the case? I think a lot of it has to do with a lack of awareness many of us have surrounding the impact of our actions and environments in reinforcing workaholic behaviours in our employees. This Psychology Today article puts it nicely, “work addiction, unlike addictions involving alcohol or other substances, is rewarded by our culture with promotions, bonuses, praise, and awards.”
Whilst I don’t, on any level, proclaim to be an expert in this area, from my own experience, I think there are a few simple things we as leaders can do to help our employees keep their workaholic tendencies in check:
- Think about the impact of your actions: This links back to my point above around the importance of self-awareness. Sometimes it’s inevitable, you will have to work late or over the weekend. But as a leader, you shouldn’t set that expectation in your team through your actions. For instance, if you’re working late, try scheduling your emails to be sent during working hours if you can. This will limit the risk of employees feeling obligated to answer or work during their personal time.
- Reward quality of work, not quantity of hours worked: Review how you measure success and assess candidates for promotion – are your long-standing processes rewarding the right things? If not, it’s time for a rethink. Similarly, try to openly and publicly praise the productive and engaged non-workaholics on your team.
- Stop being so judgemental: Let your team set their own boundaries, and don’t judge them for doing so. For example, if a member of your team can’t stay late to finish a project due to personal commitments, try to resist the temptation to somehow silently put a black mark against their name in your mind. Change your perspective and understand that it’s not about the quantity of hours worked, it’s about the quality of the work produced.
- Encourage your team to take time out: More than half of US workers didn’t take their full vacation allowance in 2017.Encourage your team members to use their full quota of leave – talk to them about how they’re going to spend it, and importantly, reiterate that you don’t want to be receiving any emails from them while they’re off. Encourage regular breaks and discourage eating lunch in front of their computers. Simple things like this will have a big impact over time.
- Don’t let the workaholic’s habits permeate to the rest of the team: As organisational psychologist, Woody Woodward says, “It’s important not to punish your more productive and balanced team members with added timelines and burdens purely created by your wayward workaholic.” Keep your team culture in check and educate yourself on the signs of workaholism to look out for in your other team members. The American Psychological Association have put together three guidelines which may be helpful here in educating yourself.
- Be a role model: As I said earlier, no generation is immune to workaholism. We are all at risk, including you. As leaders at the forefront of our businesses, potentially leading thousands of burgeoning workaholics, I think it’s important that we role model healthy behaviour and attitudes from the top. So, start today by consciously setting boundaries and communicating these with your team (and importantly, sticking to them). Also, make a concerted effort to establish more of a balance in your life by prioritising your physical and mental health. These small changes to how you operate won’t go unnoticed by your wider workforce. Of course, as leaders we will from time to time face inevitable issues with long hours, last minute emergency travel, weekends on the email at home or in the office etc. Business doesn’t stop just because the sun has set or it's the weekend after all, and stuff happens that needs to be dealt with. My point though is to look to strike the right balance. Having something else that you feel identifies you, as opposed to your work identifying you, is important in my view and it helps to turn the mental switch into your alternative world.
There’s a very fine line between working hard, and working obsessively hard to the detriment of your productivity and success at work, but more importantly, to the detriment of your health and personal relationships. As leaders, it is important that we are aware of the risks both from a personal perspective, but also for our team members and wider businesses.
I wanted to write this blog because I believe that as leaders, we have a key role to play in stopping this vicious cycle before it becomes an epidemic. I’m sure many of you reading this would openly admit that you’re a workaholic, or have been in the past, and have experienced some degree of burnout as a result. Others may say they love their work so much they blend it into every aspect of their lives and get huge satisfaction from doing so, so what’s the problem? Still, others may feel so overburdened that they simply can’t see a way of getting it all done without putting in the crazy hours and potentially losing other things in their life.
So, please do feel free to share your experiences and advice in the comments below (both in terms of how you’ve dealt with this personally, and how you’ve helped your teams) – after all, the first step to tackling this issue is to educate and learn from each other through open dialogue and debate.
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