I can’t say that I have a huge amount in common with Idris Elba. One of us is a multi-talented, multi-millionaire actor-DJ-producer who has spent the past decade being touted as a contender for the next James Bond; the other is none of those things. But when the star of Luther and The Wire shared his experience of workaholism on a recent episode of Annie Macmanus’ Changes podcast, his words touched a nerve. “I’m an absolute workaholic and that isn’t great for life generally,” he told former Radio 1 DJ Macmanus. “Nothing that’s too extreme is good, everything needs balance, but I’m rewarded massively to be a workaholic.”
Elba is so hooked on his work, he went on to explain, that he has spent the past year in therapy, focusing on untangling this desire to constantly achieve. “I could work 10 days on a film, underwater sequences holding my breath for six minutes, and come back and sit in [my home recording studio] and [feel relaxed], more so than sitting on the sofa with the family, which is bad, right?” he said. “This is the part where I’ve got to normalise what makes me relaxed. It can’t all be work.”
While, yes, the “underwater sequences” and home studio might not be particularly relatable, Elba’s affliction will surely resonate with many, myself included. You just need to swap filming stunts for, say, sending emails on the loo. In the middle of the night. On holiday. Bex Spiller, the founder of health and wellbeing platform The Anti-Burnout Club has first-hand experience. “I’ve lost count of the number of events I missed or cancelled just because I wanted to keep working,” she says. “I was even replying to clients on my wedding day.”
It can sound like a humblebrag, akin to describing yourself a perfectionist in a job interview – “look at me, I’m just working too hard, aren’t I awful” – but it’s a genuine issue. And just like any addiction, says Spiller, it can have a real impact on your life, relationships, happiness and health. Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, innovation and strategy director at Behave Consultancy, agrees. “Recognising [it] as a legitimate concern is crucial,” she says, “as it highlights the need for support, intervention and a balanced approach to work and life to safeguard overall wellbeing.”
The concept of workaholism emerged in the Seventies, when the psychologist Wayne Oates published Confessions of a Workaholic. In his book, Oates suggested that working could become an addiction if taken to the extreme, much like drinking alcohol or other potentially damaging behaviours. But the problem can be difficult to identify, thanks to “the uncertain lines between a highly motivated and enthusiastic worker, and a worker suffering from a form of work addiction”, as psychotherapist and author Eloise Skinner puts it. “Because working life is often a source of passion and motivation for many people, the transition between this state and a state of work addiction might be difficult to discern in some cases.” So how do we know when we are going too far, and what’s the difference between a diligent employee and a work addict with a one-way ticket to burnout?
“A lot of us are motivated to work hard and achieve, and we’re ambitious in our workplace,” explains Georgina Sturmer, a BACP-registered counsellor, but that only becomes an issue when it starts to feel like a compulsion, “and it becomes a real, personal thing that we can’t switch off, it’s out of control”. It is not a want but a need. “It’s like you cannot stop thinking about it until it’s done, so even if you’re sitting there having a meal with your partner, you can’t really concentrate on anything they’re saying, because you’re just thinking about that thing that you have to do,” agrees psychotherapist and anxiety expert Kamalyn Kaur.
Other warning signs might include “guilt, paranoia and obsessive feelings over work”, along with a “loss of sleep or appetite” and a lack of attention to self-care or relationships, Skinner says. Many of us will experience a few of these over the course of our careers, she adds, but “it might become worth monitoring if they show up with consistency, frequency or severity”.
Studies have found that workaholism tends to correlate with three out of the “Big Five” personality traits: extroversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Other psychological factors such as “perfectionism, high levels of stress, low self-esteem and the need for approval or validation” can also contribute, says Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and founder at Private Therapy Clinic. Sometimes the pattern starts in childhood, if you “were often in an environment where being productive and being an achiever was a way to elicit praise and attention”, Sturmer says. As a result, your self-worth becomes tied up with success.
We pick up cues from the people around us when we’re younger, too. “It could be your mum, your dad, whoever you’ve grown up around – if they just work all the time, it becomes a learned habit, you don’t know any different,” Kaur says. This was the case for Anti-Burnout Club founder Spiller. “Having grown up with a workaholic dad, I just thought that was what life was supposed to be like,” she explains. “When he passed away from a stress-related heart attack, my need for validation made me push myself even harder than before.” She worked at least six days a week, often seven, “and ended up severely unwell with burnout”.
A “need for control or the fear of losing it” amid an uncertain situation “can push [people] to immerse themselves in work”, Dr Dobra-Kiel adds, “as it offers a structured environment where they can assert authority”. It is, she notes, often “an escape from personal problems or emotional issues, providing a distraction from life’s challenges”. As a counsellor, Sturmer primarily works with women, and often sees clients who have over-fixated on their work after having children. “If someone has had a career trajectory of being in control, being in charge, having things that are structured and having a clear path to progression, motherhood can often throw that into the air,” she says. “Suddenly you’re doing a job where you don’t get an appraisal, no one’s telling you that you’re doing a good job. And so sometimes work addiction comes off the back of that, because you go into a place where you feel like you can control things.”
Our “always on” working culture doesn’t help matters, and neither does the erosion of work-life boundaries brought on by remote working during the pandemic. “The constant availability of work-related tasks and the absence of physical separation from the workplace can make it challenging to establish balance,” Dobra-Kiel says. But perhaps most damaging is our cultural obsession with overwork. “The term ‘workaholic’ can often be seen as a badge of honour,” Spiller says. “Over the last couple of decades, particularly with the rise in social media, we’ve seen ‘hustle culture’ become aspirational. Why spend time relaxing or recharging when you could be out there making more money?”
Not only is work addiction far more socially acceptable than alcoholism or drug abuse, it’s also harder to cut out potential triggers: unless you have stacks of wealth to fall back on, it’s pretty difficult to opt out of work altogether. People dealing with food addiction might experience similar problems. “Say you’ve got an addiction to any other substance or [behaviour] – you can remove yourself from that environment, because it’s not your day-to-day environment,” Kaur says. “If you’re a gambler, you don’t have to go into a casino every day… But when it comes to work, when it comes to food, you need them. You can’t just say I’m not going to work today, I’m not going to eat today. So you need to find a way of navigating it, while you’re in the same environment that’s triggering you, which can be very, very challenging.”
So how can you start to detach your self-worth from your work, and learn how to truly switch off? Elba is taking positive steps by opting for therapy, it seems. “If you’re going round and round in this behavioural pattern that you’ve been stuck in for a long time, you need somebody from the outside that can give you interventions that can help you understand your triggers,” Kaur explains. Of course, not everyone has the option of accessing one-on-one counselling, but setting clear boundaries between work and your personal life could be a useful first step. “You might try to say, ‘I’m going to finish by this time, or these are my protected hours in the day when I’m not going to check my emails,” Kaur suggests.
It’s also important, she says, to step back, evaluate your values and ask yourself: “What are you doing all this for? What’s important to you in life?” And when Spiller finds herself slipping back into bad old habits, she asks herself: “What do I want to be remembered for when I’m gone? For being the one that always ‘worked so hard’ or for being the one that was always present with their loved ones?” It’s certainly a question to give you pause, whether you’re a mere mortal or Hollywood superstar like Elba.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies