The modern relationship with work culture is a fraught one. Previously, people worked to live, feed their families, and provide the essentials. Nowadays, in the 21st century, our jobs are seen as an extension of our identities. In North America, often the first question people ask is “What do you do?” Someone without a clear career trajectory is seen as adrift, and a person without a strong work ethic is looked down on as lazy, unmotivated, or a drain on society.
In my experience, this is confusing to people from other parts of the world where work is not treated as one’s identity. It seems that in the rest of the world, work and identity are not interchangeable.
How does this emphasis on work culture, perfectionism, and so-called “workaholism” impact mental health? And how can we consciously strive towards a healthier work-life balance?
What are Perfectionism and Workaholism?
“Perfectionism” is the diligent pursuit of doing everything the best 100% of the time. This is a confusing term because the quest for perfection should be a good thing, right? Who wants to deliberately strive for anything less than perfect? And in the modern workplace, where there are often strict consequences for mistakes or failure, perfection is the ideal expected. Perfectionism, however, is a response to shame and can be a result of some kind of trauma. Put another way, to be perfect is to be “bullet-proof” and invincible – one can never be hurt again if they are invincible. Invulnerability is attractive, but unrealistic. Perfect can’t really exist.
“Workaholism” is another conflicting phase. Why would it be “bad” to be heavily dedicated to your career? We value an extreme commitment in our professional workplaces, and many consider an obsessive work ethic a praiseworthy quality, not a source of ridicule. Those with a poor work ethic are looked down upon as lazy, unmotivated, and lacking drive.
Nobody would argue that being a hard worker or a high achiever is a bad thing. These qualities can help us achieve our goals. However, the problems from an extreme work ethic should be discussed because they can have devastating impacts on our mental, physical, and spiritual health.
The relationship to one’s work can become unhealthy when work is used to avoid things at home. For example, let’s say someone knows that when they get home, they know there will be a verbal argument, so they stay at work to avoid the argument because nobody will get mad at them for working more. Work becomes a socially acceptable way to avoid uncomfortability and pain… much like alcohol or other substances.
How Perfectionism and Workaholism Become Destructive
As with many things in life, the pursuit of perfection and the dedication to work can become compulsive and problematic. The concept of addiction is often moralized, and many people use the label “addict,” which they define as someone with a debilitating obsession with drugs, alcohol, and other risky substances and behaviors. However, a problematic relationship can be formed with anything.
Even “good” things can become problematic if done compulsively or in excess. An example of this is food. Food is nourishing and life-giving when eaten in healthy quantities. However, an unhealthy fixation and a consumption of excessive amounts of food can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other weight-related complications. Any behaviour can become problematic, from exercise and/or shopping, to video games and/or relationships can become addictions if done excessively.
Dedication to career achievements, productivity, and the striving for invulnerability can become detrimental and turn into barriers to achieving one’s goals. Unfortunately, socially acceptable “addictive behavior” (like being a high achiever or a zealous gym-goer) can be challenging to identify and address. Because of the positive reinforcement for those experiencing “workaholism” and perfectionism, the person suffering may not even realize there’s a problem until things in their life begin to break down.
And what typically breaks down? Examples of the negative impacts of perfectionism and obsessively spending time at work include:
- Negative health impacts – These can consist of high blood pressure, poor sleep, weight loss or gain, heart problems, headaches, and more.
- Relationship strain – Putting work before spouses, children, and other family and friends can lead to a reduced social network, greatly increased stress, the dissolution of some relationship important to the individual (ex: divorce), and loneliness.
- Poor mental health – Perfectionism can lead to increased anxiety, precarious self-worth, and possibly even depression.
- Intense feelings of inadequacy – Similar to poor mental health, patterns such as these can lead to determining our value solely based on other people’s view of us – often called external validation.
How to Find Balance with Work and Productivity
If you find yourself trapped in a cycle you feel is unhealthy (such as not starting a project unless it can be perfect), here are some steps to take to get your life back under control:
Step 1. Slow Down, Take A Step Back, Evaluate Your Motivations
Being career-minded and focusing on improving your life is not a bad thing. But it also shouldn’t be the only thing. Questions that might be useful to ask yourself when evaluating your motivations when it comes to perfectionism:
- What am I trying not to think about?
- Why am I scared of starting this project/task?
- What would realistically happen if I stepped back or set better boundaries with my boss/workplace/colleagues?
- Are reasonable expectations being put on me? Am I putting reasonable expectations on myself?
- Would I encourage someone I love or care about to focus on the things I focus on or maintain the boundaries I have put in place?
Step 2. Find Alternative Sources of Meaning
People who struggle with “workaholism” get much of their identity from their careers and feelings of productivity. Other areas of their life (such as family, friends, hobbies, spiritual engagements, and community participation) are neglected or wholly abandoned because escaping those commitments is easier than facing them. One step to regaining your life can be to engage in activities outside of work that provide value and meaning. This doesn’t have to be a huge obligation or life overhaul – it might simply look like joining a club or community, contacting an old friend, or planning a game night with those important to you.
Step 3. Seek Therapy
Understanding the root cause of perfectionism and “workaholism” is vital to recovery. Some people throw themselves into work out of fear of financial insecurity. Others grew up with parents who failed to provide unconditional, loving support and so rely completely on validation from others. The root cause will vary from person to person, but a therapist can be asked to help someone look at patterns in their life that are getting in their way.
Perfectionism and “workaholism” are two of many behaviours that can become problematic and can severely affect a person’s mental, physical, and spiritual health. If you struggle to your purpose and value outside of work or to set boundaries with your career, reach out for help today. Trained professionals can support you in identifying these patterns that aren’t serving anymore and creating a plan to re-capture your life.
About the Author:-
Bill Arbuckle has worked in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Bill specializes in treating addiction and trauma using Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (A.E.D.P.) and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (E.M.D.R.).
Bill also has personal experience with addiction and substance use. He found the way out, back to the light, and works to help others do the same. He is the founder of Hard Road Counselling, a practice that specializes in addiction counselling in Vancouver, British Columbia.