Working Smarter

Why a Workaholic Will Die Before an Alcoholic

Posted by Joe Robinson


THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM on what makes for productive work often settles on the endurance factor, or quantity of hours. It’s as if the workplace is an Ironman triathlon in pants. The quantity yardstick plays right into the hands of a work behavior that is the opposite of what any employer would want: workaholism.

This is because the conventional wisdom on productivity is dead wrong, as in deceased-human-being wrong. As burnout scholar Christina Maslach puts it, “A workaholic will die before an alcoholic.”


For most alcoholics, it’s a long demise from cirrhosis of the liver or alcohol-related hepatitis. For workaholics, the end comes quickly in the prime of life, courtesy of stress-induced blood clots and heart attacks. It’s not a very productive outcome.

Researchers have found no positive correlation between workaholic behavior—long hours, feeling you should be working every waking minute, overwork—and productivity. Melissa Clark of the University of Georgia found in her metastudy on workaholism research that “even though workaholics may spend more time thinking about and physically engaging in work than the average worker, this may not be of any benefit to their employer.”

As someone who coaches and trains employees to work in a sustainable and more productive way through work-life balancestress management, and time management programs, I have had the opportunity to see up close why workaholics don’t do their companies any favors. They have high levels of stress, which undermine complex decision-making and cause crisis mentality, time urgency, bunker mentality, mistakes, and a raft of medical problems resulting in high absenteeism and medical bills. They think no one can do the job as well as they can, so they can't delegate or trust, causing bottlenecks, conflicts, and missed deadlines.

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Stress constricts the brain to the perceived crisis of the moment, so you can’t see the big picture, and the ruminating thoughts it sets off serve as a constant distraction from whatever it is you’re trying to do. The workaholic’s stress and time frenzy is also highly contagious, spreading anxiety and frazzle throughout the team or department.


The very motivation of the workaholic is at odds with employee engagement. While engaged employees get intrinsic enjoyment from going the extra mile and fulfilling inner needs such as excellence or service, the workaholic is driven by negative feelings about work—that he or she should be going overboard. Guilt and perfectionism drive the workaholic, and both are constant stress triggers, self-inflicting pressure and tension beyond the demands of the job and causing friction with others.

Clark found in her research that “workaholism was related to the experience of negative discrete emotions (i.e., guilt, anxiety, anger and disappointment) at work and home, whereas work engagement was related to the experience of positive discrete emotions (i.e., joviality, attentiveness and self-assurance) at work and home" (Clark, Michel, Stevens Howell, & Scruggs, 2013). 

The difference in outlook has a big impact on the organization and the individual. People driven by negative emotions and pessimism have been shown to have reduced productivity, sales success, and rapport with others on the job, reports Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina.

In other words, proactive engagement is generated from within and satisfies core psychological needs as a result, while workaholism is a chase for external approval that can never be attained, since there is always the next item on the to-do perfectly list or jump on the instant you finish the last task. Engagement fuels positive emotions; workaholic behavior negative emotions.

The motivation behind workaholism, in essence, is a self-inflicted inadequacy, which can help us see why it’s a hazard to work, relationships, and home life. It forces you to prove worth beyond what’s needed in a futile exercise that runs over colleagues, performance quality, family, and health.


The term “workaholism” has been hijacked over the years to mean somebody who works hard, to the point experts had to stop using the word and switch over to “overperformance,” instead. It’s a more accurate definition, focusing on the act of not knowing when to say when and the poor time management and non-boundary-setting that drives it.

On so many levels, then, the workaholic undercuts his or her very reason for being—achievement. Quality results are not being accomplished—in fact, the opposite is happening, with output the result of fractured attention and a frazzled, overwhelmed work style. And you can never take satisfaction from what you get done, because there's always more to do.

Making things worse is the fact that the workaholic can't step back and recharge or even enjoy a free moment--since he or she hears the voice to get busy in any quiet moment. Free time is the engine of energy, focus, and productivity, so jamming it with more work cuts off critical performance resources.

This is a complete misunderstanding of how the body works. Periods of activation set off by the demands we face each day have to be countered with the parasympathetic system’s built-in remedies of rest and maintenance. If there’s no recovery, the stress builds cumulatively day to day, taking us down the road to the burnout treadmill.


Which brings us back to the physical threat of workaholism. How does it take you out of the sentient human being column so quickly? Let’s take a look at how the condition plays out in Japan, a country with a long tradition of punishing work hours. The Japanese salaryman is known for laboring long into the night, and stories abound of people doing 100-hour weeks having heart attacks at the office. They have a term for it: karoshi, or death by overwork.

There are some 2300 official karoshi deaths each year (you have to have worked 100 hours or more of overtime per month for the family to qualify to receive karoshi benefits, about $20,000), but Japan’s National Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi says the true number might be a high as 10,000 people annually.

People who work too much tend to eat badly, not get exercise, and have very high stress levels, and along with that, high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. A Finnish study that examined 603,000 working people in the U.S., Europe, and Australia reported in 2015 that working 55 hours or more per week doubles the risk of heart attack and increases the risk of a stroke by a third.

Behaviors that drive workaholism, such as impatience, irritability, perfectionism, and anger lead to chronic stress, high blood pressure, and clogged arteries, and it’s a sudden trip to the ER or mortuary. Sure, there are alcoholics who have a quick exit, too, say, from auto accidents, but the majority will raise lots of glasses over the years while the workaholic has long since departed.

What if you love your work? Can you still wind up with a premature departure from the planet? Yes. Brian Curin, co-founder of the Flip-Flop Shop, a footwear retailer, started feeling out of sorts after working as an around-the-clock entrepreneur for years. As the boss, he had control, something that helps mitigate stress. Yet he felt he better get checked out. He had his blood pressure assessed and did an EKG. He still didn’t feel right when he ran to stay in shape, feeling sluggish and a little breathless.

He went back to the doctor and did a treadmill stress test. Good thing, too, because his physician looked at the result and told him he had to go into surgery that minute for a quadruple bypass. He was 39 years old.

Don’t be a hero or a martyr. Workaholism is a lose-lose for work and life.

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Tags: workaholism, burnout, overperformance, burnout and workaholism, perfectionism

How Overwhelm Swamps the Surprising Limits of Your Brain and Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If it’s hard to focus these days, here’s a reason why. Estimates vary widely, but humans are simply drowning in thoughts—from 12,000 to 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. It’s a wonder we can break through that babble for a moment of concentration on a single item from that cacophony.

It’s not like we’re deep thinkers, since most of the stuff is the same rehash from day to day, worries, projections, things to do, things to watch out for, threats on the horizon, things people said, things we’re fed up with, problems of the day, and ruminative loops that come from the false beliefs of stress. There are even a few good thoughts—curiosities, joyful musings, “man, that tasted good.”


Into this noise comes even more static with the steady tonnage of information overload, email, texts, all prompting their own threads of thoughts to add to the pile. Is it any wonder that overwhelm, having more on our mental plate than we can process, has become the affliction of the modern era?

Most of the people I work with in my employee development programs, from work-life balance, to stress management or time management trainings are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of to-do’s and information and data taken in each day. It’s a natural response to a barrage our brains aren’t designed for.

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The fact is the brain is not a storage center to be stuffed like a supercomputer. We don’t have Pentium processors. We are not hard drives with hair. The brain has limits that, once we become aware of them, can help us use our brain in the way it was intended, as a processing tool.

Working memory, also known as short-term memory, is one of these limitations. It’s the key to doing anything, whether in work or life, but it is highly restricted. You can’t hang on to more than three or four thought-chunks at a time for only a few seconds.


It’s very tenuous but also focusing, since you have to really concentrate in the moment to make it work. When interruptions bombard it, they blow up that fragile grouping of thought chunks needed to get something done. Then we have to try to reassemble the thoughts and where they were going. What was it I was going to do? 

We’re not talking about multitasking here, which is a separate issue and even more limited. We can do only one cognitive task at a time, for instance, since there’s only one neural channel for language to go through. Working memory gathers thought associations needed to perform a single task, not multiple ones.

Another way your brain is constrained is in the number of events and to-do’s it can keep track of. Your brain is good at staying alive, eating, and avoiding harm’s way. That’s what it was designed for. It’s not built for keeping track of 30 appointments in your head. Trying to ignore that limitation is a big driver of overwhelm, as the to-do’s circle the mind and nag us, trying to get us to notice them. The longer those items remain unhandled, the more urgent the nags become, which drive a belief that things are out of control.


The key to managing overwhelm is to get the volume issue under control. It’s the number of incoming and still-unfinished items that trigger the danger button in the ancient brain that turns on the stress response because the quantity has overloaded perceived ability to cope with them all. We can make the stack of to-do’s manageable when we get all the floating, hectoring items out of our head and onto paper or a screen, along with a next physical action for each. Once that happens, the brain lets up on the badgering and hanging on to the to-do because it thinks you are on the way to handling things. 

We need to clear space in the brain taken up by trying to keep many balls in the air for what it’s built for—analyzing data, working in the moment, innovating. We can unclutter a dump truck of space upstairs by setting the terms of engagement with the devices and interrupters that are blowing up working memory’s painstaking efforts to complete tasks at hand.

Researchers say that checking email at designated times is one of the best things we can do to rein in intrusions into our concentration. You turn your mail and phone off and turn it on manually at times you want to check. This way you are in charge, deciding when you want to deal with the business at hand, instead of being at the behest of the distractions. This lowers the intensity of volume concerns and makes things handleable.

Research at Oklahoma State University found that two to four times a day was the most productive email checking schedules. The University of California at Irvine’s Gloria Mark says three batching sessions a day, where you power through mail—but at your command—is the most effective. 


Overwhelm is a byproduct of excess volume, pace, and load, all of which can be turned down by taking the time to plan, prioritize, and delegate, and strategically question. The latter is a willingness to identify bottlenecks, unrealistic deadlines, and other issues that drive overwhelm and then ask if there are more productive ways to do things. There always are, because the work style of first resort is all based on reflex and devoid of any productive basis.

Overwhelm is a menace to productivity, since it undermines the chief productivity tool, attention. Fractured, overbombarded attention is prone to rote and panicked decision-making, and defaults to System 1 thinking, the “fast” brain of impulse and jump-off-the-cliff decisions. The overwhelmed mind is also caught up in time frenzy, since it feels it is falling behind on everything. Time pressure makes the decisions worse, leading to crisis mentality.

There are research-based solutions to handling overwhelm, as along as we agree that it’s a problem and not a badge of courage. Being overconsumed with overperformance and busyness is not a good thing. It doesn’t speak to your endurance. It speaks to counterproductivity, because we wind up doing more than we can do well.

Overwhelm is also one of the quickest triggers of the stress response, because it’s the definition of something beyond coping resources. It can be the engine of a lot of physiological and emotional issues—hypertension, insomnia, irritable bowel, stroke, family dysfunction, burnout and depression. 

Productivity is not a function of how many things you can do at one time or how fast you’re doing them. It’s about focused attention on one thing at a time. We get the job done faster and like what we’re doing more when we are fully absorbed in it. All we have to do is elude the thousands of extraneous thoughts sidetracking us and focus on the one right in front of us.

For details on our work-life balance, stress management, and productivity trainings, click the button below and learn how your team can manage demands and work more effectively.

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Tags: overwhelm, productivity training, attention and productivity, stress and working memory, overload, overperformance

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