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When your involvement in work becomes excessive...

After graduation Lena started working as a professional in a graphic design studio. Regularly, she stayed at work after hours. She obsessively ‘polished’ the projects for which she was responsible. By the sweat of her brow and with an occasional persistent headache, she wanted to prove that she was good at what she did and deserved the job.

At home, she took part in online training. She was learning how to use new graphic programmes. She did not need them for anything at that time, except for, maybe, showing them off on her CV one day. She avoided contact with her university friends. She thought it was a waste of time. She was very well familiar with the mode ‘lots of tasks, little free time’. Always a diligent student, she won honours and awards for her grades at school. At university, when her fellow students were partying, she preferred to be perfectly prepared for classes. Nobody and nothing could surprise her.

Can you work too much? Is it something wrong to be involved in your work? 

Excessive work is characterised by high intensity of work performance. When the attention, efforts and time devoted to it exceed the requirements, we may say that someone is very engaged in his or her work. There is nothing wrong with that as long as the involvement is accompanied by pleasure and interest in what is being done. When people devote themselves to their work because they see it as a meaningful and interesting activity and at the same time they can find time for rest, regeneration, social life or hobbies, such commitment to work is healthy. It can be defined as an adaptive form of excessive work. Problems arise when work becomes a compulsion that cannot be curbed or controlled.

What does it mean to lose control over work? How can you recognize it?

When you lose control over your work, you are unable to stop it. Even when you feel tired, you keep working by the sweat of your brow, just like Lena. You do it even when you have an aching back, muscles or head. You continue at the expense of your time with family, friends and colleagues, which you may give up for the sake of work. You feel an inner compulsion to work. It is like a voice inside telling you that you still have something to do. Something still requires your attention, it needs to be checked or improved. Or you think that you should start working on another project, which you do. What remains is only time to sleep. Such a loss of control over work is an indication of a maladaptive form of excessive work. Together with other accompanying signals, it may indicate work addiction.

What are the alarming signals and can they confirm addiction to work?

They certainly include the elevation of work above all other areas of life, the so-called dominance of work. Work spills over like a petrol stain, covering the rest of your life. Other things recede into the background. You have no time for yourself or other people. There is no space at all, because workaholics’ thoughts constantly revolve around work. Another important signal is irritability, anxiety and tension, which arise during leisure time. And if you use work to relieve and regulate these unpleasant emotions, you are in a vicious circle. It is an important signal confirming the gravity of the problem. A person addicted to work, even if he or she tries to work less, may not be successful.

Can you recognise it yourself?

Obviously, you may have self-reflection that something is wrong with the way you work or that you work too much and it harms you. Usually, however, you shift the blame upon the situation, circumstances or external factors, just like Lena, who explains it to herself that since this is her first job, she has to prove herself. Others, looking for excuses, might add that other people work equally hard, too, because this is how the world operates now. It is very difficult to notice the problem yourself as what arises is denial. We tend to perceive the world from our own perspective and do not accept that things could be different. So it is good to be attentive and listen to what your loved ones, parents, siblings, friends or partner have to say. They can see that you do not have time for them. And even if you manage to spend time with them, they will notice that you are always talking about work or that you are absent because your thoughts are elsewhere - at work

When does it start?

Some researchers claim that an early form of work addiction is learning addiction, which develops already at school. The demands imposed by parents and the education system can shape an attitude to learning that emphasizes achievement at any cost. You have to gain straight As because B plus is not good enough. You have to prove yourself all the time. Then, children have no time for fun and pleasure. It is difficult for them to define their interests and develop their passions under such conditions. Children learn that they cannot make mistakes. Teachers praise them and parents show positive feelings and appreciate them only when they behave well, have good grades and do not cause trouble. One might also ask, what is so strange about that? Well, as a result one starts to believe that one is valuable by what one does, how much one works. Children enter adulthood with the conviction ‘if I work hard, I am worth something, if not, I am nobody’.

Reference literature

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

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).