Functioning workaholics: are you one and why you need to stop

November 16, 2017

Many words that use the suffix ‘holic’ conjure up fairly harmless connotations.


Being a chocoholic or a workaholic are rarely considered life-threatening, or at least to the extent of their alcoholic counterpart. I mean, how can doing a lot of work be negative?

But the correlations between all kinds of compulsive behaviours, whether working or drinking, remain the same. They often involve a strong fixation on the next satisfaction of that urge, whether it is the next drink or the next pay raise. In spite of how productive a compulsion it may seem, workaholism can have a negative knock-on effect on everyone around.


Work, work, work

Functioning workaholics, just like alcoholics, rely on excuses to explain their behaviour. They will look for any way they can to justify their actions and dismiss the need for change, using these techniques as defence mechanisms to keep themselves and their loved ones assured that everything is alright. “Just one more” is a common thought process, be it referring to emails or whiskeys.

Work is the centrepiece of the workaholic’s life, meaning everything they do has to be related to and defined by their job. Work is their first thought when they wake, and the last before they fall asleep, and phones and laptops are tools of the trade when it comes to enabling and feeding this compulsion, extending working days from the early hours to late into the night.

A workaholic’s compulsions are the main focus of their lives; with all other events and commitments taking second place and often suffering, with work constantly distracting the workaholic from any other matter. They may miss important events, avoid certain topics by constantly bringing conversation back to work, or keep checking for work-related correspondence. They are often blind to the goings-on around them, with their peripherals continually shrinking and their focus being set on a distant goal that they never really hope to reach.


Skewed priorities

Compulsion is a key characteristic in the functioning workaholic. Never ending preoccupation with work-related matters and not being able to fit every commitment in is all part and parcel of the addiction; juggling tasks and calling off non-work-related events in order to make room for more work, or arriving late to one meeting having left the last one late are all classic behaviours of a functioning workaholic.

The need to carry on working regardless of other commitments, lives very separately to any logic that would normally apply to the average day at work.  Because of the workaholic’s fixation on ‘next’, no amount of completed tasks or praised jobs will slow the pace or implore the workaholic to rest and appreciate their achievements. The focus will forever be on what comes next. Because of this, workaholics find it difficult to take praise for their work, as it is a sign of there being an end in sight. Even if only a temporary one in the form of an evening or weekend, and this is what workaholics are constantly running from. Decreased or suspended work pace is a workaholic’s nightmare, and is exactly what keeps them from enjoying their own success.

Similar patterns of deterioration can be observed in both workaholics and alcoholics, and these behaviours can be dangerous, so must be monitored. Good healthy function as a human being involves getting enough sleep and minimising stressful influences.  Stress is the fuel of the functioning workaholic, and this constant panic is what keeps them going, even if they don’t see it as a bad thing. Problem is, this can quickly take its toll on a person’s health – both physical and mental – and lead to a downward spiral of medical problems from stress-related headaches and chest pains to malnutrition and depression, this makes delivery more difficult if at all possible.


Recognising the problem

One of the main problems encountered by both workaholics and some of those around them is that work is never seen as a damaging activity. As already mentioned, the term workaholic is likely to be taken as seriously as the term chocoholic by the average person, indicating a behaviour that the person should probably wind in a little, but is highly unlikely to kill them in one go, the way a drug overdose could. Because of this, any attempts at intervention or even conversation are often unsuccessful, as the workaholic sees their compulsions as a good thing, something to be proud of. They put in more hours than anybody else, meaning they work the hardest, which makes them a good employee, maybe even a great one. Workaholics and those around them often fail in equal measures to see the real danger of workaholic behaviour.

The fear that drives a workaholic – of having to slow the pace or even stop because they have reached a goal – eventually leads to a burn-out, at which point both their body and their mind are exhausted and incapable of carrying on at the same rate. Demanding the slowed pace that workaholics fear, burn-out can trigger catastrophic knock-on effects, reaching friends and family, the workplace and financial stability. The company reputation a workaholic strives so hard to uphold can even suffer if they become too unstable. The compulsion to keep working at a constant rate makes workaholic burnout an inevitability, where someone who strikes a healthier balance between work and home is far more capable of carrying on at their job.

From an outside perspective, people often fail to recognise the damaging effects of a workaholic’s behaviour, and at first managers and colleagues may even encourage it. As the reality of this behaviour sets in and those around the workaholic come to be more familiar with the chaos workaholism brings; they soon come to realise that it is not a healthy or sustainable way to work. The foundations begin to crumble. Managers will soon tire of excuses for this chaotic working style and the problems it causes to both the individual and the team. Groups that contain a workaholic often fall apart and colleagues begin to worry and even make excuses for the workaholic and their behaviour.


How to change

Although the chaos may be concerning, sometimes managers and HR departments resist addressing these issues in case it shakes up the workflow irreparably, and often concede that dysfunctional work is better than no work at all. Unwilling to risk a drop-in productivity, managers may neglect to give a workaholic the support and management they really need, unwittingly allowing that burn-out point to be reached. Lack of decent management often plays a crucial role in the decline of a workaholic.

When working with a workaholic, it is important to find a healthy balance. If, when working flat-out at 70+ hours a week, they turn out mediocre results that don’t do them justice, imagine what could be achieved in a standard 40-hour week at a more sustainable pace, with a little more structure. There are techniques that can be applied, in small steps, to adapt a workaholic’s behaviours to make them more constructive for the business and less stressful for the individual. Functioning workaholism is not a healthy lifestyle; the earlier it can be identified the better, and the more likely teams are to be able to alleviate the strain of it.


About the author

Margo Manning is a leadership coach Margo Manning, author of The Step Up Mindset for New Managers. In the last 15 years, Margo has been delivering talks as one of the UK’s top Leadership and Management Coaches and Facilitators. Margo is the architect of the 3:2 Management Model and subsequent 3:2 Management Development Programme that is delivered and adopted within many businesses, large and small, nationally and internationally. She has worked with new managers through to senior managers in companies such as Golden Sachs, Hobart Lovells, Brunswick Group, Tower Hamlets Homes, Aon, Balfour Beatty, Kantar and many more.

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