A Chance to Tame Your Inner Workaholic

The most engaged employees are those who put in face time at the office, WeWork’s CEO, Sandeep Mathrani, declared last week, while “those who are least engaged are very comfortable working from home.” This is from a man whose livelihood depends on the profitability of commercial real estate. It’s as if the Staples chief executive said the most engaged workers are the ones who use the most Post-It notes.

Nevertheless, many bosses surely share Mathrani’s view — and many employees worry that theirs also see face time as a proxy for commitment or value. Such anxiety has helped push workers to put in more hours while working remotely during the pandemic — an extra 2.5 hours a day in the U.S.

That some bosses think this way is enough to feed workaholic habits — even if it’s not clear that any particular boss agrees. “We create stories about the expectations that we think our boss has of us,” says Melody Wilding, author of “Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.” That’s even more common when people are remote, she says, “because we have a lack of cues to tell us that we're in good standing.”

While some have heralded the return to the office as a chance to reset unhealthy work habits, I’m not sure it will. Technology long ago blurred the separation between office and home, and now we may be about to experience the worst of both worlds: feeling a need to put in face time at the office — despite the productivity gains of working from home — while also seeing no choice but to stay digitally connected to work on nights and weekends. That is, we may be about to become workaholics.

The trick to avoiding this trap is to remember who’s in control. “You have a choice in terms of how you’re interpreting this situation, how you’re interpreting your boss’s email about when this needs to be done, for example,” says Wilding. “Realizing that you actually may be complicit in creating some of the conditions that you’re unhappy with is a hard pill to swallow. But it’s also empowering, because you can change it.”

For those who have been working too hard at home, office reopenings provide an opportunity to reset. Start by noticing what stirs resentment, Wilding suggests — maybe a project that was supposed to take four weeks but dragged on four months. “It’s a very telling emotion that you have let a situation go on way too long,” she says.

The solution is to set boundaries, writes Nedra Glover Tawwab in “Set Boundaries, Find Peace.” People fear blowback from their managers, but this is often an unrealistic worry. Boundaries simply teach people to respect your time.

Setting them means committing to rules such as ending work at a certain time, or not agreeing to projects you can’t realistically complete.

In time-greedy, client-oriented fields such as law and finance, the workers who manage to avoid burnout become ruthless prioritizers, says Wilding. “Yes, if a partner calls you, you may have to drop everything and spend the night working on something. But that should be the exception, not the norm,” she explains. It’s a mistake to give in to perfectionism. “You have to be very adept at pivoting very quickly to say, ‘OK, I need to prioritize this project, what else needs to get deprioritized as a result?’”

Many conscientious people want to ask for permission before setting a boundary, but this can send a signal that they are overwhelmed, or not fully committed. “I would err on the side of taking action first, and then dealing with pushback as it comes,” Wilding says. Remember that most other people don’t think about us nearly as much as we think about ourselves. It’s possible to gradually establish a saner schedule with no one noticing, not even the boss.

Rebalancing work and life means not just limiting work but also rethinking “life.” The cycle of overwork and recuperation in which people treat life as merely a time to rest from the pressures of their jobs can become a trap, write Stephanie J. Creary of the Wharton School and Karen Locke of the Mason School of Business in new research paper. It can also be a mistake to apply the workaholic’s go-go-go attitude to leisure pursuits — by jumping into triathlons, for example, or competitive ballroom dancing. The solution is to find meaningful pastimes that emphasize connection with other people rather than either relaxation or competition.

Ultimately, the healthiest thing to do can be to find a new job, though maybe not a whole new career. Fantasizing about a very stark change — to becoming, say, a landscape designer or a mystery novelist — is a symptom of burnout.

It’s more realistic — and less financially risky — to consider options within one’s own field. Boutique firms may offer more autonomy than large ones. Local or regional companies may require less travel than national or global ones.

Such choices may come with a financial tradeoff, but the bigger obstacle is often making peace with a loss of prestige. People who work at big, well-regarded firms tend to get a certain thrill from telling people where they work. Saying “I work at Goldman Sachs” feels different from “I work at Midsize Bank Company.” The same is true of adjusting to better work-life balance, because feeling busy — and talking about one’s busyness — is a way to feel valuable and important. Pulling back is often part of a major identity shift.

Workaholism often feels imposed by outside forces. But creating a saner life means tackling the workaholic within.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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