Workaholism: Regain balance before you burn out

workaholic vacation
Working on vacation is a problem if it's just one more way that you let work prevent you from paying attention to your health and relationships outside of the office.

Just because you work long hours, slave away more intensely than your coworkers or hold down more than one job doesn't necessarily mean you're a workaholic.

It's not that simple.

There's no universally accepted definition of workaholism and it's not listed in psychiatrists' official manual of mental disorders.

"I wouldn't call workaholism a disease because there are so many different grades and degrees of being one," said Dr. Gabi Cora, a psychiatrist and co-founder of the Executive Health and Wealth Institute.

But there is some overlap in how therapists, social scientists and sufferers themselves describe workaholics: They feel compelled to work, are always preoccupied with work and can't relax when they're not working. And often their compulsion to work has a destructive effect on their health and their relationships.

"People can work many hours without being addicted to work. Workaholics, however, are heavy work investors at all times ... demonstrating a chronic loss of perspective," said Cecilie Andreassen, a psychosocial science researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Related: These people took months off ... and it paid off big time

Andreassen and her colleagues have come up with the latest screening test to determine if someone may be a workaholic. Their underlying assumption: workaholism is a behavioral addiction, not just an attitude, trait or Type-A behavior. (Take the quiz.)

Michele S., an outreach coordinator for Workaholics Anonymous, said some workaholics feel they constantly have to be productive because if they're not, they lose their sense of self-worth.

The biggest concern for Cora, the psychiatrist, is the inevitable burnout that can result from workaholism. "As a workaholic, you don't have time to rest and recover," she said.

Quiz: Are you a workaholic?

A spiral of bad habits can result -- for instance, drinking more at night to relax, not sleeping much, drinking more coffee in the morning to stay awake, not exercising, gaining weight, developing high blood pressure, and getting anxious or depressed.

After years of driving herself into the ground and being irritable with her family, Michele S. said that 7 years ago, her body gave out: She would cry all the time and was bone tired every day.

She has since been able to restore balance to her life, she said. But she acknowledges the 12-step program endorsed by Workaholics Anonymous -- which is based on the program used for recovering alcoholics -- isn't the only way to overcome the condition.

Indeed, lots of different approaches exist from behavioral therapy to work-life balance programs. So far, though, there haven't been empirically valid studies of their effectiveness, Andreassen said.

Related: What it really takes to be a great boss

If you (or your family) feel you might be at risk of becoming a workaholic, you might take some preventative steps:

Take good physical care of yourself: Making an effort to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep is vital.

Put a lid on your workday: It can be tempting to take work calls and answer emails until all hours, but it's unhealthy, Cora said. It's better if you call it quits around the same hour every day, knowing you can pick up where you left off in the morning.

Set other limits: If possible, try not to work at all once you get home, Andreassen suggested. And when you are working, let yourself schedule regular breaks.

Try to restore balance in your life: Force yourself to carve out some time to spend alone and with family and friends.

"Build in ways to have enforced rest," said psychologist Ben Dattner. The trick: Remove as many temptations to work as possible.

Start small. For instance, when you take a walk with a friend, don't bring your phone with you. When you take a day off with your family, tell colleagues only to call in case of emergency.

And if you hate wasting money, buy non-refundable tickets so it will be harder to just blow off that show or weekend getaway. (*Warning: This trick doesn't always work with gym memberships.)

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