Author Profile Picture

Lynda Folan

Inspired Development Solutions

Managing Director

Read more about Lynda Folan

Workaholism, health and strategies to break away from unhealthy patterns

Workaholism has severe implications for a person's health and wellbeing and has a high risk of resulting in burnout.

With Idris Elba recently admitting he is an “absolute workaholic” and has started therapy to fix “unhealthy habits” it’s not surprising that four in 10 adults in Britain admit they cannot leave work alone. So what is the impact of workaholism and why does it occur?

The impact of workaholism

Workaholism, like any other form of addiction or unhealthy coping strategy, has severe implications for a person’s health and wellbeing and has a high risk of resulting in burnout. With mental health issues on the rise globally, this is a grave issue that needs to be addressed both by the individual and supported by the organisations.

When people reach burnout, the repercussions for the person and the organisation are significant, so it should not be left unmanaged. Burnout is a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that affects a person’s ability to function normally.

Physical symptoms can include headaches, stomachaches, intestinal issues, fatigue, frequent illness, changes in appetite and inability to sleep.

Emotional symptoms include helplessness, cynicism, a sense of failure or self-doubt, decreased satisfaction and unstable emotional reactions.

Behavioural symptoms include reduced performance in everyday tasks, low motivation, withdrawal or isolation, procrastination, outbursts, or using prescribed or non-prescribed substances to cope.

Some individuals have a natural tendency toward being vulnerable to burnout, which is exacerbated by the levels of pressure that organisations are under in the present volatile work context. With the fast-paced culture dominating organisations, busyness is seen as usual, and people feel pressured to work harder to keep up. If this is not managed, it can significantly impact the person’s long- and short-term wellbeing.

Strategies to break away from unhealthy patterns

To deal with workaholic tendencies, it is essential to combine two critical strategies. The person must

A. Build their resilience

B. Adjust work practices and routines

Find a mentor or coach. Work with a professional who will support you

A. Build Resilience

Research has consistently shown that individuals with high levels of resilience have an enhanced ability to cope with pressure, keep a balanced approach to external disruption and continue to thrive even under highly challenging circumstances (Lipsitt & Demick, 2011; Wagnild & Young, 1993).

Research shows a strong positive correlation between high resilience levels and effective work-life balance (Farber & Rosendahl, 2018). Individuals who build their resilience will be able to manage the balance between work and home more effectively. Because they understand the importance of caring for themselves, they do not become so focused on work that they cannot step away and effectively re-energise (Folan 2019).

Building resilience requires the development of the three determinants of resilience (Folan 2019). However, the two key aspects that play a part in avoiding burnout and counteracting workaholic tendencies are:

  1. Self-concept wellbeing: Self-awareness and effective emotional management.

The four critical areas of focus for enhancing self-concept wellbeing are:

  • Understanding who I am and what matters to me
  • Building a realistic and healthy evaluation of self
  • How is your self-concept structured?
  • Building emotional intelligence
  1. Constructive thinking: Observe and manage your thinking and unpack destructive (unconscious and conscious) mental processing.

There are two critical aspects to developing constructive thinking:

  • Clean up and continue to clean up our unconscious mental processing
  • When destructive thinking happens, we become conscious and change our thinking to constructive as quickly as possible

B. Adjust work practices and routines

It is critical that work practices are aligned to support the intra-personal changes that have been made. The following are some practical strategies that can be adapted to further support health and wellbeing in the workplace.

  • Prioritise work and set clear boundaries around your workload. Become more discerning about the volume of work you take on and learn to evaluate and effectively what you can and cannot realistically handle.
  • Regularly unplug from technology. It is essential to put a deadline on when you will switch off your phone and computer at night and on the weekend. Research has shown that people who can unplug from technology at night are much more likely to look forward to going to work in the mornings and feel fulfilled at their jobs (Coleman & Coleman 2012).
  • Develop a personal mission. This should define the things in life that are personally and professionally important to you. Once this is described, block out time for important personal aspects and stop simply defaulting to working due to a lack of other interests or inability to focus on things outside of work (Covey 2011).
  • Find a mentor or coach. Work with a professional who will support you in building new strategies and keep you accountable for taking action to reduce your workaholic tendencies (Grant, Curtayne & Burton, 2009).

The world we live in will not get any less uncertain or volatile, and it is, therefore, essential to embrace the strategies that will assist us in managing our wellbeing. Achieving this requires a disciplined approach to enhancing our resilience and practical action to set boundaries around work and workload.

Interested in this topic? Read Living to work or working to live?

Author Profile Picture
Lynda Folan

Managing Director

Read more from Lynda Folan

Get the latest from HRZone

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Subscribe to HRZone's newsletter