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Admit it: You’re obsessed with work. Here’s how to change that

Having too great a focus on your professional life can lead to burnout. It can also mean you miss out on a lot.

Admit it: You’re obsessed with work. Here’s how to change that
[Source illustration: SurfUpVector/Getty Images]

When you meet someone for the first time, you probably ask, “What do you do?” Everyone assumes the question is about your career, but who you are and what you do should be more than just your working hours. In fact, having too great a focus on your professional life can be a factor that leads to burnout.

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“The thinking styles and beliefs we develop determine our level of resilience and our risk for burnout,” says Andrew Shatté, cofounder and chief knowledge officer of meQuilibrium, an employee-resilience solution. “One example is ‘iceberg beliefs,’ big beliefs we build about the world and our place in it. In the achievement domain, iceberg beliefs like ‘work is a measure of a person’ and ‘if you want it done right, do it yourself’ bind our self-worth and self-identity to work.”

People with these “icebergs” tend to spend longer hours at work and are more affected emotionally by everyday work frustrations and anxieties. These icebergs are subconscious; they are pushing us around without our even knowing it, says Shatté.

An increased focus on work was once reserved for certain professions, like doctors, but today it’s common across many sectors, including tech, says Dr. Kathryn Ford, psychiatrist and practicing psychotherapist. “The Google campus clearly is meant to be a place where you can conduct your whole life,” she says. “Even calling it a ‘campus’ signals us that it is a complete environment for people who are not expected to be fully developed nor to have a life ‘off-campus.’ And the messages and rewards of this environment are well-designed to make you feel good about your work obsession.”

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Left unchecked, Ford says there is a tipping point when our work life becomes well developed while our personal life is thin and incomplete. “There is a momentum and familiarity to work that isn’t there with our relationships–with our partners, friends, family, community—and especially with ourselves,” she says.

One of the reasons our jobs become an obsession is because we have a greater sense of control over it. “As hard as work can be, it still is far more likely to yield reliable gratifications in response to our efforts to control than either the relationships with others or with ourselves,” says Ford. “We participate in relationships, and even influence, but we do not get to experience the gratifications of using power to exercise our will and make the world do our bidding.”

How to Let Go of Work

Shatté recommends thinking about the “should” statements you tell yourself when it comes to work. For example, “I should always be accessible” or “I should be able to do it all.” Then ask yourself if that’s really reasonable.

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“Checking the accuracy of these subconscious beliefs helps us gain some perspective and creates room for self-compassion,” he says, adding that you should set a mantra that counters the belief. “For example, if you’re beating yourself up for pushing back on a deadline that falls smack in the middle of your family vacation, remind yourself, ‘I’m only human, and I can only do what’s humanly possible.”‘

Your workday is approximately one-third of your day, and you should strive to maintain a sense of balance by rethinking your priorities, says psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.

“Work is important, and vital—I get it,” he says. “But so are you. . . . Think about who you are if not an executive, or lawyer, teacher, or any other type of employee. The most successful people I know are so much more than the thing that made them a professional success. They’re a friend, a son or daughter, a spouse, a mentor, a parent.”

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Employers, too, have a responsibility to see their workers as people first, employees second, says Sanjay Rishi, coauthor of The Workplace You Need Now: Shaping Spaces for the Future of Work and CEO of work dynamics for the Americas at JLL, a real estate service provider.

“We know that people who feel they can bring their whole selves to work, do their best work,” says Rishi. “And while management plays a critical role in communicating these expectations through company policies and benefits, as leaders, we can offer additional support by practicing what we preach.”

Leaders should lead by example. Even taking simple measures like blocking out time on calendars for a quick walk or a guided meditation session will demonstrate the importance of unplugging. “In the end, we must all be more intentional about how we create and maintain boundaries between work and life, even when work is happening at home,” says Rishi.

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If your organization doesn’t support striving for balance, don’t be afraid to talk to your supervisor, says Alpert. “Rather than fearing and avoiding your supervisor, see him or her as an important person in helping to bring about positive change,” he says. “Most supervisors that I know realize that a happy and content employee is a productive one. There’s a good chance he or she may not even know that you’re unhappy, so speak up.”

While you may pride yourself on being a real go-getter, Ford says it’s time to experiment with allowing life to come and find you. “Be very intentional about noticing the pleasures of not-work experiences,” she says. “Aspects of this new exploration may be challenging, so make sure you allow yourself to experience the rewards. Know that this is an exploration and a willing development of new skills. You will feel awkward and, at times, frankly bad at it. Be patient and appreciate yourself for the courage of entering territory where you are a beginner.”

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