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When work harms you, look for help!

Karolina was already working during her studies. She combined her programme in journalism with sports training and some extra work to support herself in a big city. For more than a year since she earned her degree, she has been working 10 or even 12 hours a day. She is responsible for sports news in the online edition of a local newspaper. Karolina says that her work does not stop at 4 pm. She gave up sports. She doesn’t allow herself to rest on weekends. She can’t stop herself anymore. Even when she tries, she feels remorse and blocks it out by throwing herself into work. If she doesn’t do something work-related, she gets a severe headache, feels pressure in her stomach and is overwhelmed by fear that something is about to collapse. She denies it when her partner and friends say she works too much. Those close to her are worried about her. They can see that recently Karolina’s health has been deteriorating and she has been falling ill increasingly more often.

Work may also harm you

While it is well known that certain things, such as alcohol, the Internet or even shopping and exercise, are harmful in excess, the case is not so clear with work. According to Brian Robinson, the author of the book ‘Chained to the Desk’, work occupies a unique place among other addictions. There is no doubt that work develops us, allows us to express who we are and enables us to earn money to satisfy our various needs. It can even be a source of pride to work a lot or to have already taken up a job during your studies. However, putting too much effort into one’s work and being constantly preoccupied by it can be detrimental to one’s health and disturb personal relationships, as proven by Karolina’s case.

The invisible line

Karolina loses control over how much she works. She is ‘entangled’ in her work. Her relatives are worried about Karolina as they can see that she works too much and it is harmful for her. She herself is not able to see that her way of working is unhealthy, takes away her joy of life, does not allow her to be active in other areas and even threatens her health. Karolina denies it. Her way of functioning is sustained by unpleasant emotions that arise when she is not working. Anxiety and remorse drive her to continue to work so hard. She seems to be in a no-win situation. How can you recognize that you have crossed an invisible line?

Confront the facts

It is not easy to apply someone else’s perspective, listen to others and treat what they say without the feeling of being judged or criticised. You should confront yourself with the facts. You can ask yourself the following questions or write down the following information over a period of time (e.g. a few weeks):

  • How many hours a day do I work?
  • How often do I take work home?
  • How many hours do I work at weekends?
  • When did I last have free time?
  • What do I do in my free time?
  • When was the last time I effectively recovered after work?
  • Can I stop thinking about work when I am no longer at work?
  • Have I had any health problems in the past few months?

What to do next?

You can continue to stand firmly by your approach ‘It’s not my problem’. Alternatively, you may start having doubts when the answers to these questions come back to you after some time. Some people then look online for tools to diagnose workaholism, others read a lot on the subject. However, the

result obtained in a publicly available Internet test may not be reliable. And an opinion expressed in a text regarding another person, even if provided by a specialist, does not say anything about us.

How to deal with doubts?

Note your concerns and ideally tell a professional about them. Seek professional assistance. You can try to speak to a psychologist or therapist recommended by a trusted person. If you do not know anyone, you can call a therapy centre in your city and ask them for recommendations. You can also call 801 889 880 - a helpline dedicated to people suffering from behavioural addictions.

What difficulties may arise?

Going to see a specialist is only the beginning. If you decide to seek psychological or therapeutic support, you may encounter some barriers. One of them is shame and embarrassment accompanying the disclosure of information about yourself and your difficulties with work. They are natural and will diminish during subsequent meetings with the specialist when you notice that he or she does not judge you or what you say but listens to you with acceptance.

Any other difficulties?

Lack of time is another difficulty that can arise. Taking care of yourself doesn’t fit in with the usual routine of being constantly at work. We can help you to arrange appointments with your therapist in such a way that they do not interfere with your regular working hours and thus become part of your regular schedule.

When will I see the results?

Each developmental process is individual and progresses at its own pace. A very important sign of change, often overlooked, is engagement in therapy, the willingness to come to meetings with the therapist. You should also appreciate the first seemingly small achievements, such as ‘I didn’t work last weekend’, ‘I went to cinema with friends’, ‘I went to the concert of my favourite band’, ‘I went for a bike ride’, ‘I found time to read a book’, ‘I relaxed during a walk in the woods’. There will come

a time when various non-work related activities will become a permanent part of your life. Then you will also have a life, not just work.

Reference literature

Malinowska, D. (2014). Pracoholizm. Zjawisko wielowymiarowe. WUJ.

Robinson, B. E. (1981/2007). Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. New York University Press.

About the author

Diana Kusik, PhD – assistant professor at the Emotion and Motivation Psychology Lab of the Jagiellonian University Institute of Psychology, ACC ICF coach and organizational development coach and consultant. In her research, she focuses on excessive work. She is the author of a monograph on workaholism, ‘Pracoholizm zjawisko wielowymiarowe’ (WUJ, 2014), and a guidebook for therapists working with people excessively engaged in work entitled ‘Kiedy praca szkodzi’ (ETOH, 2017).