Is Ego at the Root of Workaholism?

It’s one of the few addictions people brag about: being a workaholic. And why not? From the outside looking in, the workaholic can seem superhuman. They are the first on the job and the last to leave. They are always connected – emailing, texting and tweeting at all hours, every day. They seem to need no downtime (vacation days are for accumulating rather than using). And sick days? Forget about it. These folks work from their hospital bed.

It’s the kind of drive our Puritan work ethic-based society loves. But there’s a price to pay for it – neglected personal relationships, missed experiences and damaged health, to name a few. So why do workaholics do it? If asked, they may say it’s simple necessity – things wouldn’t get done if they didn’t do them, they need to shine to avoid layoffs, they’ve got kids to feed.

The Real Reason Behind Workaholism?

But for the true workaholic – the person who prioritizes work over everything else in their life – the reality may have less to do with feeding the kids than feeding the ego. In some cases, they discover an excessive attention to work pays off, and not just with the material things in life. The prestige, social approval and admiration it often earns them can prop up a shaky sense of self and give life a sense of meaning it might otherwise lack. But just as with other addictions, the more of the good stuff they get, the more of it they need to capture the same feeling. It can set up a vicious cycle in which ego strokes are chased, found to never fully meet the underlying need, which prompts more exertion and effort for bigger payoffs – and on and on.

The irony is that all this activity, while it may initially impress, tends not to translate to good job performance over the long term, as recent research confirms. Workaholics limit their effectiveness by the high mental and physical strain they put themselves under. In addition, they often have the knack of rubbing co-workers the wrong way by making them feel they must emulate their all-out style or suffer by comparison.

Is Ego at the Root of Workaholism?And if the workaholic is the boss, watch out. Morale – and, in the long term, productivity – can plummet if workers are made to feel they must join the boss in subsuming their private life to their professional one. Workaholics also tend to be perfectionists, according to a 2013 study, which means delegating doesn’t come naturally. Who can do a better job than they can, after all? That translates to fewer opportunities for those around them to shine or to feel as though they are part of the team.

It doesn’t help that it’s never been easier to be a workaholic, thanks to the Internet and the abundant options for accessing it. No longer is there any barrier of time or place that might once have prevented us from attending to business. The office is always open and always at our fingertips. For most of us, this blurring of the lines between being at work and being off work often serves to aggravate, and blessed is a day unplugged. For the workaholic, the potential for constant connection means they can become a martyr for their job – an object both of sympathy and admiration. But while the outside world tends to look on approvingly, the routine wears thin for the loved ones pushed aside to make room for the endless work. In fact, being married to a workaholic doubles the chance of divorce, according to a University of North Carolina study.

What Makes a Work Addict

Not everyone who spends long hours on the job is a workaholic, of course. There are plenty of folks who are engaged by work rather than compelled by a need to stand out, and even more who are forced by economics to work more than average. The question is, do they welcome or avoid opportunities to recharge? It’s often been explained that a hard worker dreams of being on vacation while at work, while the workaholic dreams of being at work when on vacation. If the latter sounds more familiar, it may be time to evaluate what’s fueling your drive. Think of how you would answer these questions:

  • Is what you do the most important thing about you?
  • Are you trying to live up to an image you’ve created for yourself?
  • Would you be as driven if your contributions were anonymous?
  • Are you pleased when others express sympathy or amazement about how hard you work?
  • What’s your reaction if a project doesn’t earn as much approval as you expected?
  • Do you ever feel that the praise you earn helps make up for praise that was lacking in your early life?
  • Does the thrill of a goal accomplished wear off quickly, sending you looking for more?
  • Do you feel your work sometimes gets in the way of your life? Or do you feel those in your life are getting in the way of your work?

For your own sake and for those around you, these are questions worth asking. Workaholics tend to have poorer health, to drink more, to be sleep-deprived and to have more trouble with their relationships, to name just a few of the downsides. And they are often the last to see they have a problem. If you know you work excessively, consider reaching out to a therapist, or explore sites such as Workaholics Anonymous for help on getting perspective and balance back in your life. Allowing yourself an honest appraisal can help you move your focus back where it belongs – from making a living to making a life.

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