Workaholism & Overwork: Don’t Let The Hustle Hype Ruin Your Life

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8 min read

Healthy Matters

“Workaholism” is surely the buzzword of our time, with the veneration of work-obsessed culture in Hong Kong. The city is no stranger to clocking over 50 hours a week, off-hours work intrusion and sleep deprivation. Not until working in the pandemic did many of us start caring about mental health at work — along with the vital signs of job burnout.


Devoting yourself to work may seem like a noble thing to do, but don’t be fooled by the superficial hype surrounding workaholics. Being a workaholic is nothing to brag about, it is counterproductive physically and mentally. Learn more about the red flags and taxonomy of workaholism, and tricks to stay away from it.


What is workaholism?

Workaholism was first coined as “the compulsion or uncontrollable need to work incessantly”, but a heated debate about its definitions soon arose among researchers:  Some define workaholism simply as an addiction to work, while others may treat it as a pathology or a syndrome that is characterized by high drive to work with low work enjoyment. To this day, no conclusion is reached. However, there are some commonalities among these definitions for us to comprehend the concept of workaholism better:

  • Feeling compelled to work due to internal pressure
  • Having persistent thoughts and feeling distressed about work even outside of working hours
  • Working above and beyond what is expected and needed that in turn interferes with other spheres of life

Perfectionism & workaholism

Be on guard if you are a self-confessed perfectionist. People with perfectionistic tendencies and high standards are more susceptible to workaholism due to impatience, compulsion to work and polychronic control. Researchers from the University of Kent and Dalhousie University further proposed that perfectionism leads to self-obsession and elevates the level of narcissism, evoking a deep-seated desire for certainty, power and control to prove one’s worth.


Most likely, the dangerous downsides of perfectionism pervade everyday life, from the tendency to overwork an idea or project relentlessly, to being in charge of all possible variables to guarantee success. Despite doing things their own way, it is rare for these ego-driven individuals to be satisfied with what they have achieved because of the compulsive drive forcing them to improve. This is why in various studies, perfectionism is demonstrably correlated with workaholism as the strongest among all the constructs. Note that workaholism may be associated with maladaptive forms of perfectionism.


Myth about workaholism

Workaholism is more than work addiction. It is a common misconception that prolonged hours of work amount to workaholism. In a 2007 study, researchers revealed that workaholism is only moderately correlated with the number of working hours.

Why workaholism is no good

In academia, debates about workaholism have even extended to the nature of the sensation. Some studies argued that workaholism is linked to higher levels of positive stress, job or even life satisfaction with better work efficacy at times; whereas others speculated that the rewards at work are only short-term and may backfire in the long haul. Workaholism is nothing short of menacing with its harm overriding its benefits.


Workaholics often bear the brunt of occupational burnout. Researchers from the World Psychiatric Association outline burnout in three dimensions:

  • Exhaustion: As individuals are overburdened with work mentally and physically, they may have difficulties falling asleep or even acute sleep disturbance despite immense fatigue after work.
  • Cynicism: Previously termed as depersonalization, cynicism occurs alongside growing resentment, when individuals become weary, unmotivated and reluctant to take on commitments. They are likely to distance themselves from their responsibilities and peers in both work and social settings.
  • Ineffectiveness: New tasks can be especially daunting to individuals who feel depleted. Their inability to cope may make them feel alone and misunderstood, and eventually lead to an internal breakdown.
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Workaholism does not equal high work motivation!

Another huge misconception is that workaholism is equal to high work motivation. The truth is, you don’t have to be a workaholic to show that you love and are committed to your work.


Engaged workers are usually full of energy, strongly involved and engrossed in their work. Although their behavior looks similar to that of workaholics at first glance as both of them work harder and longer than others, there are some significant differences:



Their underlying motivations are utterly different. If you are an engaged worker, you will probably find that working is intrinsically rewarding. They celebrate every micro success and implement the strategy of being process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented to fuel their enthusiasm.


It’s not the same case for workaholics, who may constantly fret over “what am I doing? I should be working.” The inner compulsion pushes them to exert themselves out of stress rather than pleasure.



Workaholism blurs the boundaries between work and life, and takes a toll on a person’s overall emotional health. Common negative emotions triggered include guilt, anxiety, depression and anger, etc. Although by engaging in work, they will experience bursts of adrenaline-pumping positive emotions (e.g. elation and self-assurance), these adrenaline rushes do not last long and may backfire with high-stakes physical risk.


More significantly, engaged workers experience high arousals with pleasant emotions such as excitement and enthusiasm, whereas workaholics experience increased arousal with negative affections, including hostility and irritation.



If you find it difficult to discern the difference between motivations and emotions, outcome surely comes in handy as an objective measure.


Workaholism can bring about devastating effects — a vicious circle of work-life conflict and marital disaffection to name a few are significant examples.


In contrast, engaged workers find themselves reveling in a virtuous circle of work-family enrichment instead of sacrificing their personal life for work.

How should I get along with my work then?

It is totally unsustainable to overwork yourself, it will only cost you your personal and professional integrity eventually. Get your life back on its feet with these tricks!


1 – The “Outside-in” approach

Getting out from the downward spiral of workaholism is not easy at all. Even if you can sense all the harmful signals of workaholism, it is a hard habit to break. At this point, you probably notice that you’ve been putting way too much pressure on yourself. This is what we call acting inside-out from the compulsion of work, you find it difficult to acknowledge how your emotions play out and to value other relationships.


To dodge the workaholic trap, the key is to set clear boundaries and make cuts where you can. You can start with setting precise schedules for the number of hours you will work to make it easier for you to get hold of positive reinforcers. By acting “outside-in”, you are empowered not to let a vague sense of fear take charge, drive your decisions and hurl you into work. A well-planned personal schedule allows you to objectively evaluate the use of your time and helps you accept that you have done enough work for the day rather than pulling another few hours.


2 – Squeeze in time for what you loved before

Find yourself at a loss not knowing what to do after chopping down work time? You should definitely make the most of those extra spare hours and rekindle your life passion.


Create a list of enjoyable activities apart from work alongside the schedule. Did you have any personal commitments that made you stress-free and fueled you with energy before? Consider your options, it could be unwinding with friends, reading books, watching movies or as simple as eating good food etc. The goal is to recharge during these stress-relief breaks so that gradually you can detach yourself from work as you like and ultimately, strike a healthy work-life balance.


3 – Reflect

As you explore what works best for your life, it is important that you get to the root of the problem by reflecting on your relationship with work. Try to find meaning from it rather than merely treating it as an activity.


Reflection can be instrumental in helping you identify any maladaptive thought patterns once you take a step back from intense working. The outcome will be starkly different if you are simply highly engaged in work. You focus on cultivating a healthy job-related mindset, you can easily find your work meaningful where your intrinsic motivations are correlated with higher levels of optimism and persistence, you are less likely to suffer from failures because you are not motivated by extrinsic rewards like money or status.


With a proactive rather than reactive mentality, you can face adversities better compared to passive workaholics, who experience ups and downs accompanying the extrinsic motivation. You can promote your intrinsic motivation by refreshing your focus, such as taking up a new project or even a new job, to redefine who you are.

How to enjoy your work?


1 – Thrive with an exciting career

Without doubt, apart from your mindset and self-management, the nature of work matters and determines your working experience.


It would of course be the ideal scenario if you can find and stick to a career that you enjoy for life-long happiness. There is no one-size-fits-all formula, it could be using the skills you are proud of, putting your passion into practice, the challenges it brings, etc. No matter what, no one could stay happy at work 24/7 and it is normal to be hit by frustrations, weariness and insecurities at times. What we can do is to acknowledge our signs of mental depletion, step back and invest ourselves in productive activities.


2 – Establish aspirational clarity

Instead of approaching your work with a task-fulfilling mindset, see it as an opportunity to nurture your personal and professional growth. Besides choosing a career that stands you in good stead and helps you achieve your milestones, devote your energy to the opportunities and connections that emerge as valuable.


As you make progress with your career and harvest personal growth, you will be able to differentiate your job and career. The differentiation will ease your shift from relying on the compulsion of work to committing yourself to your professional development. One of the most notable causes of work stress is failing to keep up with commitments. In this case, your aspirational clarity will come in useful to keep you away from saying yes or making over-commitments to unimportant tasks.


It is worth remembering that all the trials and errors at work give you the perfect grounds to better understand your capability in the professional area. Over time, you can manage your negative emotions more effectively and professionally.


3 – Root for one another

Communication is a crucial skill in multiple spheres of life, work is no exception. Asking your seniors or colleagues for feedback about your performance instills positive reinforcement and makes you feel valued. It also gives you a new direction to fit in your working environment. Knowing your customers’ comments can be even more fulfilling, they imbue your work experience with new life and vitality.


Don’t shy from asking for and making clarifications to foster conversations. If you are confused or disagree with the comments given, tell them respectfully. Who knows? It can be just a step away from an enlightening exchange of ideas that award you with insights and professional vision.



Although work takes up a sizable portion of your time, it shouldn’t be consuming your life, nor should it be a soul-destroying misery for you. So, why not take better care of yourself and enjoy every moment while you’re in it?


Is workaholism a disorder?

Workaholism itself is not recognized as a medical condition by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — often considered the benchmark in diagnosing mental disorders. However, workaholism is associated with various mental disorders, including anxiety and depression.

How do you treat workaholism?
How does a workaholic affect relationships?
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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and is not sponsored. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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