By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published by Harvard Business Review
We all have intense periods at work where multiple deadlines converge, an important deal is closing, or a busy season lasts for a few months. During these times, we may work more intensely or longer hours, but we know that the situation is temporary, and we are able to keep work in perspective. Conversely, approximately 10% of Americans are considered workaholics, defined as having a “stable tendency to compulsively and excessively work.” Whether you are in the midst of a temporary work crunch, or if working all the time is your version of “normal,” there are some key signs that you are pushing yourself too hard. These include:
Consistently putting off vacations (including working over major holidays), regularly working all weekend, or dismissing the idea of an occasional day off is a sign that you are burning the candle from both ends. While only 23% of Americans take their full vacation time allotted, studies of elite athletes show that rest periods are precisely what helps them to perform at full throttle when needed, and the same is true for the rest of us. While extended vacations are helpful, smaller breaks, such as taking the weekend to recharge, carving out personal time in the evening, or having an occasional day off can also be an important part of having sufficient downtime to restore your energy and counter the drain of being “always on.”
When we focus exclusively on work for extended periods, it often comes at the expense of our personal relationships. During 2018, 76% of US workers said that workplace stress affected their personal relationships, with workaholics being twice as likely to get divorced. Not taking time to connect with friends and family can also be detrimental to our health. Research shows that strong social relationships are positively correlated to lifespan and that a lack of social relationships has the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. If you are not taking time outside of work to connect socially with others and have become increasingly isolated, such that social invitations have dried up because others assume you are not available, chances are you are too focused on work.
Another sign you are pushing yourself too hard is that when you do leave the office and take time to be with the people you care about, you are not able to mentally turn work off and be present with them. In 2017, 66% of Americans reported working while on vacation. Jeff, a former client of mine who is a senior partner at his law firm, has never gone on vacation without his laptop. In addition, after making a point to spend time on the weekends to connect with his daughter, he confessed to constantly thinking about work and admitted that he couldn’t help but compulsively check email on his phone every few minutes. While it’s normal to think about work periodically, it becomes a problem when we’re not able to manage our urge to give into work-related distractions, slowly eroding our most important relationships. In his book, Indistractable, author Nir Eyal points out that these distractions make the people we care about “residual beneficiaries” of our attention, meaning they get what is left over, which typically not very much.
This is not the occasional skipping a shower when working from home in your sweatpants. Failing to get sufficient sleep, missing meals or existing on a diet of coffee and energy bars, or abandoning exercise or personal hygiene for extended periods are all indications that you are in an unhealthy pattern of behavior. In particular, when we sacrifice sleep for work, we are effectively working against ourselves, as sleep deprivation is shown to impair higher-level cognitive functions including judgment, critical thinking, decision making, and organization. Likewise, skipping exercise puts us at a further disadvantage. Exercise has been shown to lower stress, improve mood and energy levels, and enhance cognitive function, such as memory, concentration, learning, mental stamina, and creativity. As a former investment banker who worked 80- to 100-hour weeks during more intense periods, taking breaks to exercise, eat, and even nap in one of the sleeping rooms provided onsite was critical to maintaining my health, stamina, and productivity.
Failure to see a broader perspective, both in terms of how you see your value as a person as well as how you see the importance of work relative to the rest of your life, can be a sign that you are pushing yourself too hard. This myopia is usually driven by deeply held limiting beliefs that create a contracted worldview. Elisa, the head of engineering at a tech company, pushed herself and her team incredibly hard. Her behavior was driven by a belief that “My value is what I produce.” To broaden her perspective, she asked others she respected about what they valued about her, as well as how they valued themselves. She was able to see not only that people valued her for other things like being a good friend, parent, or thought partner, but also that they defined their own value more broadly than their work. Sometimes, it takes a big life event, like the birth of a child or the death of a colleague or loved one, to shake someone out of this restricted perspective. Another way to broaden your perspective in the absence of these events is to have interests outside of work, which can be a good reminder that work isn’t everything.
While we all need to shift into high gear from time to time, keeping work in perspective with the rest of our lives, and taking care of ourselves and our relationships are key to achieving long-term success, both personally and professionally.