Work Addiction: How To Stop Being A Workaholic

by | Career Growth, Mental Health

Finding a job that you love is a primary career goal for many professionals. But what happens when loving your work goes too far, and you develop a work addiction? In this article, I share signs that you might be addicted to your job, the most common causes of workaholism, and how to treat work addiction.

An important note before diving in further: Although I hold a doctorate, wrote my dissertation on mental health, and frequently speak about mental health in the workplace, I’m not a medical doctor or therapist. Rather, I’m a recovering workaholic, mental health subject matter expert, and executive coach who has worked one-on-one with 1,000+ clients, many of whom wrestle with overworking and want to integrate great work-life balance in their lives.

Can You Be Addicted To Work?

For starters, can you be addicted to work? Yes, you absolutely can! Similar to people who experience other addictions, those living with work addiction often describe a seemingly uncontrollable desire for action, success, or praise, which they feed through working. This results in a vicious cycle of additional obsessive thoughts that they relieve through compulsions (more work).

What Are The Symptoms Of Workaholism?

So how do you know whether you simply love your job or are addicted to work? Although work addiction symptoms vary from person to person, here are some of the most common ones I see in my clients:

Work Addiction Symptoms

  • Keeping a packed schedule that doesn’t allow time for anything beyond work.
  • Overworking until mentally, emotionally, or physically exhausted.
  • Getting upset when making a minor mistake or error at work.
  • Working longer hours than colleagues.
  • Failing to take sufficient breaks or vacations from work.
  • Ignoring physical needs like eating, showering, or sleeping to prioritize work.
  • Struggling or forgetting to meet non-work commitments.
  • Missing or minimizing gatherings with friends and family for work.
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships outside of work.
  • Constantly thinking about work outside the office.
  • Difficulty relaxing when not at work.
  • Not maintaining interests or hobbies outside of work.

This is not an exhaustive list of work addiction symptoms, as every individual is unique and workaholism manifests differently in everyone. Additionally, having these symptoms doesn’t automatically mean you have a work addiction.

Moreover, work addiction can coincide with personality traits like perfectionism and narcissism, as well as mental health disorders like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and substance use disorder.

What Triggers Work Addiction?

So what triggers work addiction, and is workaholism a trauma response? Like the symptoms of work addiction, the causes can also vary from person to person and are rarely simple. The following are some of the common causes of work addiction:

Common Causes Of Work Addiction

  • Response to trauma, including during childhood and teenage years.
  • A stressful childhood that involved taking on adult-like responsibilities at a young age and/or working from a young age.
  • Workaholic parents, caregivers, and/or role models.
  • Attempting to escape difficult feelings by focusing on work and/or success.
  • Trying to fit in with other people through work.
  • Hyper focusing on the appraisal of peers and managers.
  • Feeling less competent in another area of life, such as family, social activities, or health.
  • Displaying people pleaser, perfectionist, and/or narcissistic tendencies.

How Do You Stop Being A Workaholic?

If you’ve gotten this far, you might be asking yourself, “How do I stop being addicted to work?” Tackling work addiction isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Here’s what you can do if you’re experiencing work addiction:

Set boundaries.

Boundaries are critical in effectively managing work addiction as well as developing a semblance of work-life balance. Now, if you’re a regular reader of my Forbes column or career blog, I probably sound like a broken record at this point, as I frequently mention boundaries as a solution to most work-related problems.

Yet from personal experience, as well as work with my clients, I’ve found setting healthy boundaries with yourself to be one of the most important steps you can take if you want to cope with workaholism.

The following are examples of boundaries you might set with yourself to battle work addiction, inspired by my own clients:

  • “I leave work by 5:15 PM every day.”
  • “I take lunch away from my desk (and outside if the weather permits).”
  • “I don’t work on weekends.”
  • “I keep my work phone and laptop out of my bedroom.”
  • “I use all my vacation days.”

Importantly, you want to find boundaries that align with your individual needs, personality, and working style, so get creative and experiment with different ones until you find those that work (pun intended) for you.

[Read: How To Disconnect And Enjoy Your Vacation: 6 Tips]

Adopt a “heck yes” or “heck no” mentality.

Work addiction can be tricky to manage, in part because the urge to work can come up at any moment and is seemingly easy to squash – at least momentarily – by “quickly” checking an email or Slack message. However, this can result in a vicious cycle that only further feeds your workaholism.

Consequently, I encourage my clients to adopt a “heck yes” or “heck no” mentality when it comes to working and playing. In other words, when you’re working, focus on work, and when you’re playing, play all out. Living in “heck maybe” land is confusing and stressful, particularly if you’re a workaholic.

If you have a work emergency come up, for instance, you might be tempted to respond to a few emails at the dinner table. However, you can’t “heck yes” having dinner with your partner and “heck yes” responding to emails at the same time; you need to choose one “heck yes” to focus on. This might look like remaining 100% present at dinner and then dealing with your work emails afterward or stepping away from the table for a few minutes to address the emergency and then returning when you can be fully present with your family.

My clients often share that adopting a “heck yes-heck no” mentality is one of the most effective and empowering ways they’ve found to manage their work addiction.

Practice disconnecting.

Another important step you can take to combat workaholism is to practice disconnecting from work. As a recovering workaholic, I know how difficult it can be, particularly in our digital age, yet it’s necessary if you want to achieve a semblance of work-life balance.

You can start small, too, when tackling a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” like conquering work addiction. Personally, I began by turning off all work notifications, including email, on my smartphone, which really helped my mental health. Many of my clients share that switching off their notifications when out of the office helped them break the habit of constantly being mentally “on.”

Several years ago, when I began my doctoral program, I adopted a “No Work Saturday” practice where I unplugged from my work and studies to allow myself to refresh and recharge. Many of my clients have since adopted similar “No Work” days, nights, and weekends, which allow them to connect with family, friends, and themselves while mentally leaving work at work.

I primarily work with senior managers and executives in tech who love tactical goals, so consider setting a few to guide your journey. Here are some examples inspired by my own clients:

  • “I work out every morning before checking my email or Slack.”
  • “I don’t check email before 7 AM.”
  • “I spend at least an hour per night on myself.”
  • “I don’t work on Sundays.”
  • “I am unavailable for work emails when on vacation.”

Find joy outside of work.

Dr. Elliott Snorkeling in Mexico 2023

Dr. Elliott (far right) getting ready to snorkel with his family on a recent 8-day vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

You can also manage work addiction and workaholic tendencies by discovering interests and hobbies beyond your career. As someone who really loves their work and thrives on results, I know this can feel challenging, yet it can be done.

Personally speaking, I have found immense joy in learning, writing, visiting Disneyland, and traveling. Sure, I still get the urge to work, but I try to use these alternatives as an opportunity to dive deeper into my passions and find new extracurricular activities.

Ask yourself, what brings you joy outside of work, and how might you lean into it further? Also, are there any interests or hobbies you’ve been wanting to try?

Final Thoughts On Managing Work Addiction

Coping with work addiction takes time and isn’t an overnight journey, so please be patient. The process will require your awareness, time, and a continuous commitment to self-improvement.

Please also know that you don’t have to navigate the process alone. Speaking from personal experience, I wouldn’t be where I am today without my community and the help of therapy, spiritual direction, and my own coaches.

Important: Coaching is not a substitute for mental health therapy, yet the process can make a powerful complement when you find the right coach and program to support you in navigating your work addiction.

Find people who will sit alongside you, as well as hold you accountable, as you find and maintain the right balance between work and play. If you want to speak with someone who has been there before, please free to schedule a consultation. I’m here for you! You’ve got this!

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

Dr. Kyle Elliott is the founder and career coach behind CaffeinatedKyle.com. His expertise is in Silicon Valley and high-tech. As a result of working with Dr. Elliott, senior managers and executives have landed jobs at Meta, Amazon, Google, and nearly every other tech giant you can imagine.

A trusted career expert, Dr. Elliott’s words have been featured on Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Fortune, and The New York Times, among dozens of other leading publications. He has been recognized as a Best Career & Interview Coach, Best Resume Writer for Silicon Valley/Tech Managers & Executives, and LinkedIn Top Voice (the platform’s highest honor).

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