THE BLOG
08/10/2013 11:33 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2013

Are You a Workaholic?

As a 20-something literary agent, Lila was averaging 60 hours a week on the job, between the mornings spent poring over manuscripts as she brushed her teeth and rode the train, hours logged at her desk, lunch meetings, drinks meetings, dinner meetings... It had been months since she'd hung out with a friend, never mind gotten to the gym. And the crazy thing was, she didn't even mind. She was furthering her career. Earning money! Insuring independence! She knew she had a problem, but it wasn't as if she were binge drinking or out having random sex or even stepping on others to get ahead. The field was just so competitive. All she was doing was working hard.

In my work as a research psychologist currently studying women in the workplace, I hear women describe this sort of near-obsessive commitment to work with increasing frequency. It makes sense: These days, more and more women are embarking on, and staying with, careers that are personally fulfilling, identity making, and, yes, lucrative. As a result, they're finding themselves tied to their work in inextricable, all-consuming ways. Work is who they are, and how they define themselves. For many, it's how they develop feelings of self-worth. This can be both empowering and dangerous.

Just because work itself is a respectable pursuit doesn't mean that an addiction to it is any less damaging than other sorts of addictions. A number of studies show that workaholism has been associated with a wide range of health problems, such as insomnia, anxiety, and heart disease. A 2001 study published in the American Journal of Family Therapy found that working too much negatively impacted an employee's marriage -- perhaps not surprising, since if you're married to your work it can be difficult to be married to anything, or anyone, else -- while another also published in the International Journal of Stress Management that same year even found that workaholics can make their co-workers stressed. Their kids don't do so well either.

Of course, working, or simply being busy, can be a hard habit to break. Busy people are important people. They're also often pleasantly distracted people. "Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day," wrote essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider in a New York Times op-ed that went viral last year. When workaholics aren't busy working -- or doing something to promote their work -- they feel anxious and guilty. Part of that is derived from the lingering notion that great opportunities for women are still rarer than they are for men, and as such must be strived for with unflagging determination and drive. What's more, today's female employees are among the first generation to have been raised by mothers who, as a whole, placed importance not just on a job, but a career. For many of these women, the slide into workaholism seems almost predisposed.

Of course, the message here isn't to work hard. Hard work can reap great rewards, and women should continue to strive for professional fulfillment and for opportunities previously not afforded to them. But they should also ask themselves: Am I working too hard? And if so, why? A 1983 study defined workaholics as those who work at least 50 hours a week, a relatively low measure by today's standards, where for many 50 hours is par for the course. But whether the hours logged hit 50 or 80, many who work hard are working for reasons beyond the benefits good work provides. For them, working serves as a Band-Aid for other issues, a way to numb undesirable feelings or fill certain voids, much in the way that alcohol might do for an alcoholic or sex for a sex addict. As Kreider writes, busy people "may be addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence."

Certainly, using work as a distraction is healthier than drowning your sorrows in a bottle of tequila or with a cute stranger (or both). But clearly, work addiction has very real consequences. Constantly being at, talking about or even thinking about work can come at the cost of everything else in life including, as discussed, health, but also family and other relationships. What's more, working too much can lead to a distaste for that very job that was so all-consuming and important in the first place: A 2008 study published in The Psychologist Manager Journal found that workaholism can ultimately cause those employees to experience less job satisfaction than coworkers who maintained a better work-life balance.

Work is vital to survival and, for many people, sanity. It is financially necessary. It can also be fulfilling and empowering, enabling independence and providing a worker a clear purpose and sense of self. But what's key to keep in mind is that work is just one part of life. And that sometimes it's best -- for everyone -- to know when to shut it down and go on home.