8th October 2020

Supporting workaholics and worriers at work

18th April, 2019

Matt Dean

Workaholics: what’s not to like?

The definition of workaholism or work addiction (your choice of terminology) I’ve found most useful is a “disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands; an inability to regulate work habits and over indulgence in work to the exclusion of most other life activities.”

It’s temptingfor employers to be passive, to do nothing, just reap the benefits of over indulgence in work. After all, who’s to say that it is overindulgence?  The workers probably don’t recognise they have a problem; they’ve normalised 3am bedside BlackBerry intrusions, regular conference calls from the holiday villa and 5am as a good time to arrive at the gym – it’s quiet then! They describe themselves as conscientious and committed.   The model’s sustainable, it works.


It does work.  People indulging in work to the exclusion of other life activities underpins our working world.  There’s a whole other article about the word indulge here. Most workaholics don’t feel like they have a choice and that’s a big part of the problem.  What tips someone into the workaholic bucket is when mostof their other life activities are excluded; when their life lacks balance.  How many of the ways to wellness have been excluded?  Connecting with friends or family?  Physical activity? Giving to others? Being mindful?  Most workaholics won’t be able to tick any of those boxes (if they’re honest with themselves).


Coming out’s one thing, actually doing something about it is tough

I came out as a workaholic in 2010. It wasn’t until I got a coach in 2017 that I even started to challenge my normal. I cringe now at the joke I used to tell whenever I spoke about flexible work: “at byrne·dean we all have flex-work arrangements, mine is that I get to choose which bit of the weekend I’m allowed off.”  This was after I’d come out!

I’ve written elsewhere about my car crash Sundays.  I’d normalised slipping into work early to do a couple of hours before everyone woke up. If I was awake at 5, why not? I seldom got back before 10.  With hindsight I see that after a half-day’s work, I wasn’t wired for family life: “what do you mean you don’t want a cooked breakfast, I’ve done it all now!” (Delivered as a shout.)

When I was first set the goal of having two days completely without work each week, it was genuinely stressful and difficult.  I did it by going cold turkey. It was genuinely transformational.


Can employers help?  Will they benefit?

In short, yes and yes.  Any serious focus on wellness will help workaholics.  The problem is they’ll think they have no time to engage with it – so you have to take it to them.  The employer benefits are obvious and similar to those that any serious focus on wellbeing will deliver.  


Practical steps: start the conversation, extend it to everyone, then perhaps use the word

 (i)  Start a serious conversation in your workplace about sustainable work patterns and what’s causing current, damaging work patterns.  This isn’t about putting on a couple of (probably poorly attended) lunch and learns. Serious leaders in the business need to talk regularly and explicitly to their teams (and other people’s teams) about the dangers of overworking and lack of balance, about how they’re working – as individuals and in teams, internally and externally (with clients).

Those leaders need to be clear about their red lines, publish working hours in their email sign off, actually talk to clients about their expectations of the hours people will work, make turnaround times part of the procurement/engagement process and talk about how things have been in regular review meetings with clients.   

How do you identify senior leaders to lead on these issues? Probably with a catalyst event.  Maybe by engaging with something like the Mindful Business Charter, a bilateral initiative initially between banks and big law firms in the UK. Ideas in the paragraph above come from the Charter.  Its overtly commercial and bilateral nature makes it so potentially potent.  The service users (banks) are targeting improved service from fresher lawyers and the lawyers’ senior leaders visualise their firms as more effective, ultimately more profitable having reduced burnout and staff turnover.

(ii) Extend the conversation to everyone:if the junior people in an organisation are going to believe what’s being said, it’s critical they see senior leaders role modelling positively;  having their own red lines and supporting others with theirs.  Also, probably more importantly, line managers need to be comfortable startingconversations with everyone in their teams about work patterns, balance and handling stress.  They need to be able to listen, to care and to propose solutions.   This is about inclusion.


Some organisations are looking to have champions in each business area to have these sort of mentoring conversations. Surely though the aspiration should be for each line manager to have the skill and confidence.


(iii) The idea of workaholismis probably best introduced as part of this conversation.  Probably by someone (some people) respected in the organisation, perhaps in the sort of videos we saw used recently in “This is Me”mental health campaigns in many firms.   There may be a resistance to using the W word itself, but certainly introduce the idea that damage is done when work excludes mostother life activities and the power of balance: of connection; physical activity; giving and mindfulness.


I dream about the idea of Workaholics Anonymous (WA) type groups. Maybe they’ll be run in firms or by industry wide bodies (or groups like the Mindful Business Charter). Somewhere we can go to talk anonymously about our struggles or successes we’ve had, where we can draw strength from others.  


Perhaps someone will get in touch to talk about that or tell me about a group?


And worriers?

Worrying about our work is normal and part of mainstream conscientiousness.  It becomes a problem when we lose perspective or it stops us sleeping.   Worriers too will benefit from any serious wellness initiative and from a conversation that’s extended to everyone about how we work.


Above all worriers will benefit from having line managers and colleagues who understand them and who treat them accordingly.  This is basically about inclusion. In that spirit I reached out two worriers on my team.  I got an automated ‘I’m on holiday’response from one (who I immediately texted, instructing her not to reply under any circumstances). Here are the other’s thoughts.


1.        Make sure your worrier understands timelines and priorities; be clear what can wait or be delegated.  Your worrier will assume it’s urgent and should be done now.

2.        Understand your worrier downloads/processes things in their own way, give them time and space to go through that. If they find clarity, everyone benefits.

3.        Identify your worrier’s triggers and priorities.  Mine are my childcare and medical appointments.  If they aren’t planned and covered well in advance, the simplest request feels overwhelming.  Once they’re sorted, I can take on bigger challenges.

 You support workaholics and worriers best by understanding what they’re like and involving them in a safe but explicit conversation.

Matt Dean

Matt Dean is an inveterate worrier and workaholic. A senior employment lawyer in City law firms, in 2003 he co-founded byrne·dean - a consultancy dedicated to creating kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces. He’s worked all over the world, facilitating discussions about people being nice to each other at work. His first book The Soft Stuff: Reclaiming kindness for the world of work’ is published in April 2019.

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