‘Workaholism’ or burn out?

Ines Perrin, psychologue clinicienne francophone, centre de Londres

In our modern society where competition gets harder and harder, high value is given to hard working people and people often define themselves by how busy and successful they are in their profession or their career. In this context, overworking is often highly valued by organisations (and we understand why) and the general public and socially accepted. We can distinguee two types of workaholic: the ‘enthusiastic’ workaholic for whom working hard produces satisfaction and fulfilment but who is also able to cut the link and the connection with the organisation and enjoy other things in his life, has hobbies, exercise, spend time with friends and family etc..  And the unenthusiastic workaholic who responds to strong internal pressure, feels unable to cut the link with the organisation and follows a compulsion to work hard.

In the latest the workaholic usually feels unsatisfied at work, undervalued by the organisation and generally unhappy.. He/she will often feel unable to delegate or will impose upon himself unnecessary time constraint or expectations from management. This pattern can be toxic for the workaholic himself but also for the organisation he/she works for on the long run. It can decrease efficiency, create conflicts and tension within the organisation and affects the workaholic’s personal and family life.

Even if somehow being ‘addicted to work’ is accepted and even valued by our society, workhalism is in many aspects parallel to an addictive behaviour (Griffith, 2011). This in the sense that it is compulsive, out of somebody’s control and is constantly in somebody’s mind.  It is also an addictive behaviour in the sense that working on a task will feel gratifying on the short term, it can regulate negative emotions such as anxiety or fulfil a sense of emptiness, boredom or even underlying low mood or depression. Overworking will somehow help somebody forget, escape or be distracted from something unbearable in the individual’s reality or psychic. Like an addiction, there is the question of tolerance and dosage in the sense that the workaholic will have to work more and more and increase his ‘dose of work’ in order to get satisfied and fulfilled. Finally some kind of ‘withdrawal symptom’ can appear during holidays or weekends with a potential increase of anxiety or irritability and a compulsion to ‘check’ his computer, make connection with work or just spend ‘just one or two hours’ on a laptop.

Generally the increase of weekly working hours, the anxious feeling of never doing enough, never meeting the targets may lead to a professional fatigue. Hence workaholism can be considered as a high risk factor for burn out or as the initial phase of ‘professional hyperactivity’ (doing extra work without being paid, feeling indispensible, feeling constantly in a rush, feeling unable to cut the link with the organisation) inevitably leading to a professional burnout. Denial is often initially prominent in the ‘workaholic’ and the first symptoms of professional burn out may appear in the form of somatic or physical complaints (back pain, insomnia etc.) or psychological complaints (low mood, anxiety etc.).  These symptoms should be a wake-up call that some things needs to be reassessed in your life and that some changes will need to be made. 

Burn out does not go away on its own and it will actually get worse unless you identify and address the underlying issues causing it. There are positive steps you can take with the support of a professional in order to overcome professional burn out and to get your life into balance. If you believe that you may be experiencing a burn out, please do not hesitate to contact me to book an appointment.