Over three years ago, Wayne Bento felt something was off. From being able to handle stress by letting it dissipate, he was now holding on to it. The chief operating officer of Bengaluru-based marketing communications company Veeville worked intensely for long hours. “I’d start working as soon as I woke up, constantly checking on work communication until bedtime,” says Bento, 39. He traced the origin of his downward spiral to 2019, when dengue affected his ability to deliver an important project on time. “My team at the time botched it up to a point where we had to restart the whole process from scratch,” he recalls. He felt helpless and upset over losing control. When the pandemic hit shortly after, he started overworking. “I put on weight, my temper was frayed, and my life, work and personal, was deeply affected.”
Supported by his company, last year, he took a 45-day break at an Ayurvedic centre to destress. Still a recovering workaholic, Bento is gradually slowing down, admitting it is a challenging process.
Such experiences are not unheard of in the corporate world, where long working hours are par for the course. But most do not realise the signs or dangers of being a workaholic, a term that describes those who feel an uncontrollable need to work incessantly and prioritise it above everything. “Working hard is generally considered a positive attribute in society, and early on in life we understand that giving our best is a good behavioural trait,” says Bengaluru-based counsellor Shabari Bhattacharyya. Workaholism, she explains, is currently not classified as a diagnosable addiction disorder.
“Many people mistake workaholism with being passionate and dedicated to their job. One is working compulsively and one is working with excitement,” explains Bento. “It’s important to realise in which direction it is heading before it’s too late.”
Do workaholics derive pleasure from work? Some research suggests they do. But a recent study published in the Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology found that workaholic employees were unhappier than those who disengaged with their work routinely. In other words, a workplace thrives when its occupants are able to strike a work-life balance.
Other potential repercussions include depression, burnout, anxiety, lifestyle diseases, isolation, and family conflict. Workaholism develops for varied reasons—a competitive environment, being a perfectionist or liking being in control of situations, social conditioning, or an escape from other problems.
Bengaluru’s Kavya Shankar, 33, believes her workaholism stemmed from wanting to escape a challenging home environment. She started doing part-time work at the age of 14. “I was unhappy to go home. At work, I felt in control and would take on extra shifts and work Sundays,” says Shankar, who has a wellness and life coaching business, Breakthrough Transformations.
Few years ago, Shankar realised she lacked an identity beyond work. At parties, she felt like she was wasting time. Anxiety was a long-time companion. “I did not invest time in relationships with family or friends. I am 33, and have barely dated,” she says. “An ex-partner asked me that if I spent Monday to Saturday at work, and Sunday to prepare for the week ahead, then where did ‘he’ or ‘we’ exist? I didn’t like what he said, but it made sense.”
Radiologist Monica Chhabra’s disciplined work ethic was inspired by her mother’s. “I can’t say no. I have gone to work just after fracturing my elbow, and chikungunya. In the middle of parties, I would start working on my laptop.” The 49-year-old loves her work, consulting with various clinics and hospitals in Delhi, and does not feel workaholism has affected her negatively, yet. But when her mother had a stroke a few years ago, Chhabra realized she needed to slow down and develop interests beyond work.
Workaholics may not recognise the warning signs. Bento lists some of them: unexplained weight gain, constant headaches, restlessness when waiting for a task done by others, constantly checking messages, irritability even with small things. When seeking professional help, not many people identify or admit their problem is working too hard, says Bhattacharyya. “We see it in other aspects when clients come for anxiety or issues related to family or health.”
Disengaging from compulsive behaviour is a challenging process. “I enrolled in dance classes to make myself get away from work,” says Chhabra. She has started socialising more, going out for lunch with friends, trying to rest for an hour in the afternoon, and attempting to not work after getting home or between Saturday afternoons and Monday mornings.
Workaholism may also be motivated by underlying emotional issues, says Bhattacharyya. “Family and friends can help someone who is dependent on work for their emotional needs to see there are perhaps other needs that are not being met, or that their needs can be met in other ways. Mental health professionals can be a part of the process, but the person affected needs to recognise there may be a problem.”
Shankar was aware of her workaholism, but ignored addressing it until much later in her late 20s. “Fortunately, because of my mentoring profession, I was able to recognise these patterns. I feel like I am in a good place now, but I still have a long way to go.” She has changed her work process, prioritising her time and herself. It involved letting go of old thought patterns, clientele, and friendships that did not serve her.
Bento has started meditation, but believes visible results will take time. “Though not easy, I have started letting go,” he says.
Organisational support is crucial, explains Sanjeev Jha, head (human resources), Research & Ranking, a research-driven equity advisory brand. He suggests some initiatives, like those in place at his company, including mentorship programmes to provide outlets for sharing experiences and seeking guidance; counselling and grievance redressal platforms to help employees navigate stressful situations; flexible working hours; and paternity, bereavement, and exam leave apart from regular time off.
Though companies can help, individuals need to understand the importance of setting boundaries. “You can make great money and connections, but if you continue in this pattern you are abusing yourself,” says Shankar. “Mindlessly multitasking impacts your work quality, listening abilities, relationships, and being really present, even if you are physically there.”
Like any other addiction, work addiction or workaholism is the inability to stop the behaviour. It may be a symptom of an underlying mental health or psychological condition, or an escape from other pain points in one’s life. Besides seeking professional help, here’s how you can spot and address it:
Extreme behaviour or the manifestation of seemingly unrelated symptoms could signal a problem. Unexplained weight gain, inability to or restlessness when delegating work to others, frequent headaches, and the inability to think beyond work.
Communicate and ask for help from friends and family. Some companies also have support systems like grievance redressal platforms or mentorship programmes that allow for discussion and guidance.
Create separate personal and professional calendars, disable communication alerts on your phone after a certain time of the day, and build in personal and family time into your schedule and stick to it. Find interests and things to do beyond work— making time for hobbies, friends, travel and socialising.
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.