There are many reasons why we burn the candle at both ends at work. Often, people are under pressure from their employers to take on heavy workloads, or feel a duty to go beyond the 9-5 to provide for themselves and their families.
Being a workaholic can be linked to our personalities and it is often seen as a badge of honour. And our first-in-last-out work ethic has both created and normalised a culture of overworking, in which answering emails at 10pm is expected. In recent years, however, psychologists and researchers have suggested workaholic tendencies may be linked to another factor: trauma.
Research on the connection between overwork and trauma is limited, but some researchers have suggested a link between the two. A on women survivors of intimate partner violence and on survivors of childhood sexual abuse both indicate that these groups of people may be inclined to overwork.
However, we still don’t know exactly why some trauma survivors might turn to work to cope with their emotions or feelings – and just how big a role trauma may play in the problem of workaholism.
It’s possible that some people may use work as a way to ease or ignore emotional issues and trauma, as a coping mechanism or a form of escapism. For some, throwing themselves into work – at the detriment to their health – is a way of gaining back control they feel they have lost.
“Workaholism, is a ‘respectable’ addiction, much valued in many societies and never more so than during COVID-19 when we are now working from home or ‘living at work’,” explains Dr Marielle Quint, a chartered clinical psychologist at , a mental health clinic in London. “It can be thought about as a compulsive need to work, to the detriment of other areas in your life.
“Due to early experiences of managing stress, working too much becomes addictive, as self-worth and identity is gained from work itself. Workaholism may be an addiction, like many others, such as the use of alcohol or substances such as alcohol and tobacco,” she says.
But the thing about addiction, including workaholism included, is that the urge is never quite satisfied. No matter how many hours you put in, it rarely feels like enough.
“Unfortunately, because workaholics constantly increase their standards, seeking increased levels of validation, this inevitably means working harder to seek the fulfilment which never comes,” Quint says.
“Additionally, if you are constantly working it’s also an avoidant strategy to not think about painful feelings,” she adds. “Workaholism can take its toll on your health, indeed have fatal consequences if not challenged. In Japanese, they even have a word ‘koroshi’ – meaning death by overworking.”
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In comparison to other unhealthy coping mechanisms, overworking may not seem like the most detrimental to our health and wellbeing. But it’s important to remember just how harmful it can be.
The term “burnout” is to German-born psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who used the term in a 1974 study of the condition. But with modern workers constantly ‘switched on’, burnout has become widely recognised as a state of chronic stress that impairs our mental and physical health. It’s now so common that in 2019, the World Health Organization categorised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in its revision of the International Classification of Diseases.
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We’re often told that overwork is the price we pay for success, but this is a costly myth. Not only is overworking often unproductive, a summarising the findings of 89 primary studies found workaholism was related to lower job and life satisfaction, as well as worse physical and mental health.
has frequently linked the stress caused by overwork to serious physical health problems, including an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks. And the problems caused by overwork can have a lasting impact too, with a 2016 linking workaholism to higher systolic blood pressure and greater levels of mental distress a year later.
Addressing the problem of overworking requires a widespread cultural shift. But on an individual level, taking note of your workaholic tendencies can be an important first step. Frequently check in with yourself about how you feel, mentally and physically - and listen to what your body tells you.
“The first thing is recognising that you are using work as a means of coping with difficult life events or current circumstances,” Quint says. “After recognition, research shows that we can actively shape and influence the way our brains wire together and develop.”
“This can be impacted by the way we think and eat, exercise, sleep, the people we surround ourselves with and shifting our priorities to our health and wellbeing,” she adds. “Therapy can be key in re-evaluating your working life and taking steps to think about doing things differently can be a good starting point.”
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