Article

Leadership Matters: Talking Openly About Workaholism

businesswoman leader works alone in dark office at night
By Sophie Bishop

6 minutes

Work addiction can have a big impact on leaders. Be aware of the symptoms and make proactive changes if you find yourself heading in that direction.

The transition from employee to leader is an exciting one. It often comes with the opportunity to help shape and future-proof an organization. Everyone wants to make their mark, and becoming a business leader is a great way to do this. However, leadership doesn’t come without its struggles.

Becoming a leader has a huge learning curve. It often requires longer working hours, unsociable schedules and a whole lot of extra responsibilities—all of which can take time to get used to.

Let’s face it: We’ve all been confronted with the harsh realization that to be successful, you have to work hard. However, this realization coupled with the mounting pressures of taking on leadership roles can cause workaholism. And the truth is that workaholism doesn’t just affect you as an individual; it affects your whole team.

Signs of Workaholism

When people hear the word “workaholic,” they often associate it with excessive working hours, a lack of social life and burnout. However, the term actually refers to a person’s approach to work.

How you approach work can depend on numerous factors, such as fighting for a promotion, taking on a new role, accepting more responsibility or managing a team of people.

Transitioning into a leadership role often requires you to work longer hours during the week to manage your workload, or perhaps you end up working while you’re on holiday or work on the weekends. But these new work habits can quickly become an unhealthy new normal.

Below are a few signs you’re a workaholic:

  • a compulsion to work (this could be due to workplace, relational or personal pressures);
  • thinking about work even when you’re not working;
  • sacrificing time with friends and family in favor of working;
  • working through your lunch break; and
  • experiencing regular physical or mental health symptoms, such as digestive issues, insomnia, high stress and anxiety, depression or a compromised immune system.

The Effect of Remote Work on Workaholism

Now that most employees are working from home, they have permanent access to work, causing the boundaries between work life and home life to be irrevocably blurred. Often, those in positions of leadership end up checking their emails more regularly outside of work hours, working for more hours in the day and picking up work on the weekends. This is causing workaholism to worsen and become more widely spread.

According to The American Psychological Association, “Technology advances (e.g., smartphones, company-supplied laptops) have allowed employees potentially unlimited access to their work, and changes in where work occurs (e.g., telecommuting) may further blur the lines between work and home.” As we continue to bounce in and out of lockdowns, it is essential that organizations are aware of the heightened risk of workaholism for employees at all stages of their careers.

The Impact of Workaholism on Leaders

Workaholism is something that often grows over time. It can be so subtle that many leaders fail to notice it’s a problem until it starts having a significant impact on their lives and the lives of their team members. Below are some of the most negative ways workaholism can affect leaders and their organizations.

Failure to Delegate Effectively: One of the most common problem areas for workaholics is delegating work to their team members. The reason is that many workaholic leaders see themselves as the highest achiever. They assume that if they want a job done properly, they should do it themselves. This mindset can be incredibly damaging, both for the individual and for their employees.

After a while, the workload becomes overwhelming, and there are simply no more hours in the day to get things done. As a result, project delivery and response times slow down, and leaders become roadblocks both for their projects and for their teams. This causes a lot of stress, plummeting team morale and causing leaders to lose influence.

Poor Mental Health and Well-Being: Workaholics tend to prioritize work over everything else, including taking care of their own mental health and well-being. From taking on extensive projects to working on very little sleep and a diet of coffee and cereal bars, it doesn’t take long for overwhelm to set in.

As soon as leaders become overwhelmed, the plates they have been spinning start dropping. Deadlines are missed, projects are delivered at a lower quality than usual, and still the pressure increases. Eventually, it becomes too much, and leaders have to step down to take care of their health.

Impaired Judgment: Business leaders hold a lot of responsibility and are required to make important decisions daily. However, these decisions—and a leader’s judgment—can become impaired by the effects of workaholism.

When a leader is overworked, exhausted and stressed, it can feel like they are overloaded. This can make things like reading body language, managing emotional responses, making sound judgments and leading a workforce effectively very difficult. Impaired judgment can lead to poor decision-making, and this can have a ripple effect on the individual leader, their team and the wider organization.  

Substance Abuse: Substance abuse is common among workaholics. When people are required to work harder for longer, they often revert to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, high alcohol consumption, physical inactivity or taking drugs. All of these habits can have an extremely negative impact, causing problems such as addiction and long-term health complications.

This has been a particularly poignant issue since the pandemic started, as it comes coupled with a higher propensity for workaholism and less availability for treatment. According to Kayla Gill, content director at LuxuryRehabs.com, “In the early days of the pandemic, the surge in the need for addiction treatment services was also accompanied by a decrease in their availability. Over half of the facilities surveyed by the U.S. National Council for Behavioral Health said they had to close their behavioral health treatment programs, while 65% had to turn clients away.”

Fatigue and Insomnia: It is not uncommon for workaholics to experience severe fatigue and insomnia. The combination of long working hours, poor diet, neglect of self-care and lack of physical exercise can all make sleep problems worse. According to The Sleep Foundation, adults need between seven and nine hours of quality sleep per night. Most workaholics don’t get anywhere near that, and as a result, they can really struggle to get through the day.

Worsening Relationships: Perhaps it goes without saying, but workaholics often experience a deterioration in their personal relationships. Nurturing the relationships we have with both colleagues and loved ones is essential for our mental health and general well-being in addition to effectiveness at work.

In fact, according to The Mental Health Foundation, “Extensive evidence shows that having good-quality relationships can help us to live longer and happier lives with fewer mental health problems. Having close, positive relationships can give us a purpose and sense of belonging.” When you are married to your work, it is extremely difficult to prioritize anything or anyone else. Worsening relationships can result in very lonely, isolated people.

As you can see, workaholism can have a significant impact on leaders. Workaholism can sneak up on you if you’re not careful. It’s important to be aware of the symptoms and make proactive changes if you find yourself heading in that direction.

Sophie Bishop is a medical journalist who specializes in psychology. Sophie’s passion is to raise awareness through her writing about healthcare, mental well-being and sustainability issues, and she is looking to connect with an engaged audience of working professionals. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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