Being a workaholic does not help your career

Being overly attached to work can also lead to enmeshment, a scenario where personal boundaries are weak or non-existent. (iStockphoto)
Being overly attached to work can also lead to enmeshment, a scenario where personal boundaries are weak or non-existent. (iStockphoto)


For many people, work offers a sense of purpose, which is a good perspective until one starts attaching it to their self-worth

For Priyadarshini Sahni, “work is worship". Having grown up in a Kochi house where both parents were accountants and would work long hours to complete tasks, Sahni imbibed several of their personality traits that ignored personal or professional boundaries.

In fact, she can’t recall the last time she took leave in the past five years to unwind or set off on a holiday. “Growing up, I learnt that nothing comes before work," says the Mumbai resident, 36, who works as a sales lead at a multinational. “I remember my father calling off our family holidays if a sudden work project came his way. Taking leaves at work was considered nothing short of a ‘cardinal sin’ at home. I am not too happy about it; work is constantly on my mind. I can’t seem to switch off."

Like Sahni, several others across the world think of a job as more than a monthly paycheck. For them, work offers a sense of growth, community and purpose, which is a good way of looking at professional roles until one starts attaching it to their self-worth. When someone takes their work too personally, any communication from the superiors—be it an assignment, feedback, or meeting even in the wee hours of the night—can trigger them to respond with urgency. As Akash Moitra, a 41-year-old content manager from Chennai, puts it: “I understand making errors at work is a part of being human. However, every time I commit a mistake, I get washed over by feelings of fear and uncertainty of losing my job."

Also read: Watch out, your social media posts might cost you a job

Such an attitude towards work isn’t surprising given that we operate in a hyper-connected world and spend one-third of our lives on office tasks. The problem starts when people like Sahni and Moitra develop a toxic relationship with their work and let it define them. Small wonder then that it turns them into workaholics, something that eventually starts hurting their productivity. A study last year, published in the Journal Of Occupational Health Psychology, which included 139 full-time employees in Italy, concluded that most workaholic employees are unhappy with their life both outside and inside the office, as compared to those who stepped back from work from time to time.

A generational problem?

There’s enough research to show that millennials (typically those born between 1981 and 1996) forfeit time off for several reasons, from being afraid of their superiors, to constantly worrying about maintaining a pristine reputation before their bosses. Millennials, or Gen Y, like to be “work martyrs", pushing themselves to work long hours and endure unnecessary stress—something they learnt from their hard-working baby boomer parents who lived through tough financial times like the 2008 recession and the pandemic.

That’s one of the reasons workaholism has been a trend among millennials, concluded a 2016 survey conducted by Project: Time Off (a project launched by the US Travel Association) and market research company GfK that involved 5,641 workers in the US.

This kind of emotional investment in work is actually detrimental and can also strain relationships with colleagues, says Delhi-based Ruchi Ruuh, an independent counselling psychologist.

“Such people are likely to engage in constant criticism and may find it difficult to delegate work. They also look at work failures as personal shortcomings," adds Ruuh. “Such behaviours will certainly cause high-stress levels, create resentment and make them defensive even in the case of minor feedback." Taking work so personally can eventually bring down creativity and impact work in the long run—which is why it is advised to have a thick skin in today’s competitive world.

In the multi-generational workforce that exists today, there are different work values embraced by each generation. While millennials and Gen X take work too personally, Gen Z’s focus leans on work-life balance.

Dr. Vidhya Thakkar, assistant professor (organisational behaviour), at Mumbai’s KJ Somaiya Institute of Management, explains: “The orientation towards ‘leave and attendance’, for example, is very different for each generation and could often become the reason for disengagement from work. Employees of all generations must understand that taking work too personally is not healthy for anyone."

When it gets too much

Being overly attached to work can also lead to enmeshment, a scenario where personal boundaries are weak or non-existent.

Dr Thakkar advises employees to evaluate themselves by asking certain pertinent questions: “Do your thoughts about work go beyond office hours? Do you plan informal dinner meetings only with people you work with? Are you unable to discuss topics other than work with your friends or family? If the answer to these questions is in the affirmative, you are enmeshed within your career and it’s time to take action," recommends Thakkar.

Before breaking free from this unhealthy pattern, employees need to understand that their job is part of the sum and not the whole. While it’s natural to feel angry, hurt or emotional at work in case things haven’t worked out the way it was expected, it is important to exercise caution and not let emotions get the better of us.

“There’s no denying that work is extremely important because it gives us financial stability and an opportunity to showcase our skills. But it’s not above the life we have; there’s much more," says Rachna Taranath, head of human resources at Hyderabad-based MassMutual India, a Global Capability Centre of MassMutual US.

Also read: What productivity means to different generations

It’s important to recognise early signs of burnout and stress, so that immediate action can be taken. Ruuh advises those who find themselves too attached to work, to take time out for self-care, family and friends, and doing things they enjoy.

“Ask friends, family and colleagues for emotional support and guidance during challenging times," she says. “Also, find healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress including mindfulness and relaxation techniques or seek professional help if needed."

Finding the balance between personal and professional life is crucial, since it can make one more productive and resilient, says Dr Thakkar. “Listen deeply and actively. Paying attention to your own thoughts and understanding the self is crucial to take positive steps."

While employees can take some steps to improve their situation, companies can also help them by encouraging flexible work arrangements, especially when the personal front needs more focus.

“Companies can also provide resources for stress management like employee assistance programmes, mental health resources/workshops, wellness initiatives to support employees’ mental and emotional well-being," adds Ruuh.

Besides this, she offers another piece of advice: There’s no point dwelling on situations that can’t be controlled. “Shift your focus to areas where you can use your skill set and make a positive impact. You will automatically see a difference in your stress levels and self-esteem."

Geetika Sachdev is a Delhi-based journalist.

Also read: How to organise your work life like a monk


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