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Basic Conflict Resolution Skills: Workaholicism & Conflict

WorkaholicismWhat is Workaholicism? 7 Signs You May Be At Risk

Workaholicism generally refers to someone who is compulsively addicted to work, although there is no medically accepted definition. In my mediation practice, I have observed how business owners who are workaholics, either through necessity or desire, have triggered increased conflict, health problems, lack of energy, lowered resilience, and poor business decisions and complacency with negotiations due to fatigue.

When business owners are exhausted they can often give in easily during a negotiation. When this happens, they can make decisions that are not necessarily in their best interests or very risky business decisions, because they want the problem to just go away.

7 Signs of Workaholicism 

Note that workaholicism is different from working hard. Beyond the more than eight-hour workday, listed below are several signs of workaholicism that I have observed in my practice:

  1. Feeling emotional or angry when asked to leave your work
  2. Neglecting basic self care such as sleeping, bathing, bathroom needs
  3. Socially isolating self
  4. Inability to “shut off”
  5. Inability to compartmentalize work and recreation
  6. Chronic fatigue
  7. Constant anxiety about work

Workaholic Professions

Some professions live in a culture where workaholicism is not only rewarded, but also demanded. Typically, these professions are particularly problematic because they are highly correlated with larger sums of money. For instance the fields of finance, law, and medicine tend to struggle with work/life balance. Former finance workers have remarked that if they approached a supervisor with concerns such as burnout they would be laughed at and given the admonition “if you can’t take the heat, get out”.

Examining what is driving your compulsion and why we are compelled to follow it is a critical step in managing it. The workaholic work ethic could be traced, in part, to a Puritan/Judeo Christian ethic. This is not to judge those beliefs but to foster awareness of the underlying values driving what sometimes appear to be arbitrary and automatic beliefs and the consequent choices and actions. For instance, blind beliefs such as “well, this is how it’s always been done” underlie many such automatic decisions.

The Medical Intern: Unpacking the Stigma of Workaholicism

The case of medical interns is illustrative. There is great stigma in the medical community regarding discussing the plight of the intern. The question of whether it is a necessity for 14-20 hour intern rotations appears to have one exceedingly useful benefit to the profession: hazing to weed out those who are not dedicated to the medical practice. If practicing under these conditions were a medical necessity, it would be forced for a longer period of time outside of intern training.

But the reality is, as we all know, people put under such conditions for extended periods of time would not only be terrible doctors, they would probably be dead. Incidentally, sleep deprivation is one of the preferred methods that humans use for torturing each other during war.

The practice of grueling shifts appears more out of the benefit of a narrow group who controls who gets to be part of the group. Whereas a key aim of the medical practice, as embodied in the Hippocratic oath, is to help the patient. When asked for a patient’s opinion on which they would prefer: a sleepy surgeon or an alert and fresh surgeon, most would opt for an alert surgeon. Objectively, a sleepy surgeon presents clear risk to the patient. Viewed in these terms, the grueling intern rotation appears to operate more as an exclusionary function.

If the practice of such rotations was beneficial to making a person a better doctor for the exclusive purpose of objectively equipping them psychologically, then the practice is likely justified. However, such rotations are not an objective measure of improvement or influence, such as improved hand-eye coordination, which is a much more practical benefit. Instead, the benefit here is psychic.

There is much to be said for psychological resilience, but sleep depriving a person who needs to be able to use these skills does not logically serve the patient. Some would argue that such pressures are important for forging a doctor who can serve on command, under extreme, or non-ideal conditions such as in the middle of the night, when one is sleep deprived. And that experiencing such trials can give them the confidence to save a patient who is dying at 3:00 A.M.

Objectively, biologically speaking, it is highly improbable that anyone awoken at 3:00am to save a life will be operating at their peak if it not their usual practice and that whatever past experience they have had can only vaguely inform the entirely unique experience in front of them. Either they can successfully perform the work with those particular and highly unique circumstances, or they cannot.

Thus, one can only conclude that the purpose of grueling intern rotations is for a select group to limit access to the profession. This is significant because it suggests that the underlying reasons behind this practice are to maintain the power hierarchy. The consequences, however, is a tremendous source of stress that measurably damages your body.

Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky studies stress and observed that primates in the wild who are positioned lower in the group hierarchy, subordinates, have elevated levels of stress hormone in their blood compared to “alphas”. (Sapolsky, 2004) (National Geographic, 2013)

Ask Yourself This…

The useful question to ask with a demanding workaholic situation is whether the compulsion to work is stemming from wanting to belong to a group or to help your customer/client/patient.

By understanding why we make the choices we do, we can be more self-aware and and make better choices for ourselves. This allows us to avoid making knee-jerk reactions that are not truly aligned with our values, needs and interests, and thereby potentially avoid needless pain. Avoiding all pain is neither helpful nor desirable; but avoiding truly detrimental choices can help us be happier.

The goal is not to make people “soft” but to leverage and optimize abilities to reap the most reward for the least amount of effort. We are hard wired to find “shortcuts”. That is also why tools are so vaunted in our society. Utilizing awareness and conflict resolution skills as tools can massively leverage your time and energy.

What Causes Workaholicism

The causes of workaholicism can be divided into three major categories that are exerting pressure.

Internal Past Pressure  

How we were raised can be a strong influence on our relationship with work. If we saw that our parents never engaged in leisure, never gave us attention, or never managed their time or set boundaries, there is a very good chance that some of these habits may be second nature to you today. We learn through example and our parents were our very first exposure to healthy or unhealthy relationships with work. These experiences set the stage for the current ways of relating.

Internal Present Pressure

Through my observations, fear, anxiety, compulsion, low self-esteem, insecurity, and fear of emotional intimacy, and a lack of mindfulness/self-awareness are common symptoms of those suffering from workaholic tendencies. Fear of not having enough money, or business failure, are just a few examples.

A lack of mindfulness is particularly key. By being unaware, we are removed from, or dissociated from, our body. We are not machines and yet, one of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution was the notion that people could perform like machines. The daily consumption of caffeine in the form of coffee to boost performance, is testament to how, probably, we are not supposed to be running this fast. If we did not have the reserve before, why are we pushing our bodies now? Most people would answer, “Because I can’t function otherwise!”

External Present Pressure

Social pressures are critical in external present pressure. Working hard is important and necessary to achieve, but how one approaches the task can make a big difference in how much happiness one can experience in the journey of life.

As a consequence of the recent economic recession, there was great stigma with complaining about one’s job and discussing work/life balance was taboo. People frequently denied working less, sometimes even reporting fewer hours to promote the perception of greater value to employers. And, chest thumping about how little sleep one got was frequently touted as a “badge of honor”.

Such ostentatious displays of self-flagellation not only seem oddly Puritanical in a modern world, but also stoke unhealthy competitiveness, and unsustainable practices that appear cost-effective in the short term, but are extremely dangerous to the business in the long-term. For instance, high turn over of employees to lower the bottom line can trigger a brain drain, which drives a race to the bottom for the business’ overall value.

Typically, people tend to do things not because they are aware, but because either everyone else is doing it, for social conformity and acceptance, or because they just do not know otherwise. People often operate out of habit: “because we’ve always thought this way” or “because we’ve always done it that way”.

However, mindlessly doing things because the herd does is much like sleep walking through life, and I have witnessed much suffering in the clients I serve on this very point. Sometimes there is great utility in following a herd such as how a line tends to magically form in great crowds to exit a crowded space. However, I have witnessed many who suffer because they blindly pursued a path that they believed was the only one because everyone else was doing it.

Instead of praising the quality of our work, there is more interest in the quantity and speed with which we produce, or the convenience we deliver (with 5 ways to reach us that inevitably infringes on family time). Such unrealistic performance values are often not aligned with our best interests—for our financial or physical wellbeing. Sloth rarely produces excellence. However, making the journey miserable is unnecessary and, in fact, could be highly detrimental to our overall productivity.

Interestingly, when Steve Jobs died, not much press was given to the fact that the man was clearly a workaholic. Jobs’ most important parting words, to his children, were that he “did all of this for them”. But Jobs rarely showed up in their lives. What the media neglected to explore was how, quite possibly, Steve Jobs could still be alive, creating more value for the world, and participating in his children’s lives in a meaningful way, if he had not driven himself, literally, into the ground.

Why Workaholicism Could Be Harming Your Bottom Line

Workaholicism could be harming your bottom line because you could be more productive. Yes, more productive because workaholicism, ironically, and not intuitively, lowers productivity. But first, let me explain why workaholicism is dangerous for your business. Generally, workaholicism can prevent you from being efficient, creative, and effective at solving problems.

Workaholicism can be particularly detrimental for your business because your health is intimately tied to the success of your business. Being healthy is one of the most important investments you could make in your business because you are key to running it. Without you, major decisions cannot be made and problems be solved. You are critical to its success. You would not want to work your star performer into the ground because you know how expensive it can be to find, train, and compensate them. Treating your body and your brain with respect is critical to your success.

The health problems linked to work related stress is enormous. From shortened life expectancy, heart attack, high blood pressure, weight problems (triggered by a sedentary lifestyle because of workaholicism), to diabetes triggered by weight problems. What we begin to see is a series of diseases and afflictions that can be traced, frequently, back to stress. Workaholicism can trigger a long-term stress response, which can lead to burnout. Stress can also release the harmful hormone Cortisol that has been linked to many diseases. Short-term stress can be extremely helpful and it can be positive stress that motivates you to reach your goals. However, long-term stress is a fast track to burnout, which would put you out of commission, and possibly your business.

The most powerful ways to battle such stress is through healthy diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management such as rest and mindfulness. While diet, exercise, and sleep are beyond the scope of this article, we will cover more comprehensively the matters of rest and mindfulness. These are two extremely powerful tools in battling workaholicism, and consequently, helping you to resolve conflict more easily and effectively.

Workaholicism is also damaging for your relationships—both professional and personal. For instance, if an entrepreneur refuses to break away from work on a Saturday evening to spend time with his spouse, she may begin to start believing that his work is more important than her. Virtually all business icons, without fail, stress again and again how critical their spouse and families are to their success.

Without this most important member of the team, a spouse or significant other, supporting you, the journey may be extremely difficult and potentially very painful. And deeper conflict such as divorce can trigger unwanted business consequences, such as the spooking off of investors. But if your significant other is onboard, the journey can be far more feasible, and much more fun.

Workaholicism is also detrimental to your mind. By exhausting the mind with extended work and focused thinking, you are sapping its ability to be agile. Interestingly, mental fatigue has the unwanted effect of making you feel physically tired as well, thereby sapping your energy for the much needed physical exercise to stay healthy.

Managing workaholicism is good for many reasons. Managing your energy can help the bottom line by increasing productivity. You will need to experiment to find the ‘sweet spot’ because everyone is unique. One size does not fit all. Some will need a longer time frame in which to accomplish what they need to do. This does not mean they do not have value, in fact, those who are able to create a superior product in longer time, arguably, has more to offer in terms of value.

Solutions for Workaholicism

Fortunately, there are a number of highly effective tools and techniques to manage workaholicism. Here are some of the most effective strategies and are highly integrated into the stress management ecosystem:

1)    Practice taking breaks & rest

  • Try breaking up your work day into smaller segments instead of working for long stretches at a time with interspersed breaks. Start with small increments (e.g., 5 minutes).
  • If your desk is so busy that you can barely make time for the restroom, there is a problem: try to evaluate what is truly a priority and find ways to delegate and re-negotiate work expectations with supervisors or clients (sometimes a break-neck pace is not desired but actually quality output). This provides the opportunity to create the mental space needed to work most effectively instead of constantly being in panic management mode
  • Even mundane activities such as grooming are surprisingly effective for calming

2)    Exercise better time management

  • People are spending lots of time at work but not truly focusing
    •  Try doing Pomodoros where you work entirely focused for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break. Repeat the 25-minute work and 5 minute break cycle 4 times, then take a longer 20-30 minute break and repeat.
  • The desire to ‘control’ employees could be harming your bottom line. As a manager, you are likely seeking maximum output from your employees. However, maximum output can actually hinder productivity. For instance, part of the reason why there is typically an eight-hour workday is because it was found that no more productive work could be achieved beyond eight. 12 hour days did not yield as much as 8.
  • In other words, hours in the seat does not necessarily equal more dollars in the company’s pocket. Hours and income are not positively correlated. In fact, the longer the hours, the less income is generated because employees are less focused and therefore less productive.
  • The potential problem with long-term pressing of long workdays is that it will erode morale and will cost more in the long run to find new talent. There is the immediate gratification of putting a fresh warm body in the seat, but the empirical research suggests that such actions actually cut into the bottom line because of the high costs of recruitment, training, and most problematic with brain drain. (See Boushey)Over-control at your own peril.
  • New studies are revealing that relinquishing control makes for better productivity.

3)    Practice delegating more

4)    Reduce workload by scaling back less important projects

5)    Minimize engagement with email (e.g., avoid checking email all day and instead opt for batch processing at a couple pre-determined times during the day and focus only on that task)

6)    Establish and enforce boundaries

7)    Cultivate comfort in saying “NO, thanks”

8)    Practice better energy management (e.g., respect your body’s need for rest when the signs appear)

9)    Engage in more play

10) Enjoy Nature more frequently

11) Cultivate mindfulness

12) Practice meditation

13) Cultivate wellness habits such as better sleep/diet/exercise hygiene

14) Eliminate harmful habits (e.g., smoking, excessive drinking)

15) Practice and schedule unstructured rest time or idleness

16) Avoid Work/Life Integration: make hard breaks with work and play

  • For instance, when we sleep, we are actually working (dreaming) but our bodies essentially shut down for productivity—you need to naturally give your body the opportunity to fully replenish

17)  Technology fast

  • Avoid media/news
  • Unplug for extended periods, starting with 5 minutes, then gradually work up to longer stretches (e.g., unplugging entirely on vacation)

18) Cultivate Focus through body awareness

  • We are taught to dissociate with our bodies and technology compounds the problem further now, but we can take control by walking away from these devices at predetermined times and focus on other tasks at hand such as truly being present with our family

19) Chart your progress with integrating better wellness practices & reward yourself when you reach wellness milestones (e.g., rewarding yourself with something meaningful to you when you are able to work up to meditating daily, for 8 minutes, for a week)

20) Connect and share your experiences and struggles with other non-judgmental peers


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Boushey, Heather and Glynn, Sarah Jane. “There are Significant Business Costs to Replacing Employees.” Center for American Progress 16 Nov. 2012; [Internet]. [cited 17 Sept 2013] Available from http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/CostofTurnover.pdf

“Killer Stress: A National Geographic Special”. Prod. National Geographic, 2008. DVD; [cited 2013 Sept 17] Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYG0ZuTv5rs

Sapolsky R. 2004. Why zebras don’t get ulcers. Third Edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company.


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