It can be hard to spot a workaholic, especially in a culture that applauds the devotion to getting things done and a “go big or go home” mentality. But loving your job and being emotionally dependent on it are two very different things.

When you’re no longer in full control of your actions and behavior, it’s a sign of addiction. In fact, when American psychologist Wayne Oates first coined the term workaholic 50 years ago, he defined it as “the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”

Engaged or Obsessed?

What separates being engaged from being obsessed? Motivation.

If you have a passion for what you do, find that become enjoyably absorbed in tasks, and can delegate effectively, you are most likely an engaged worker. On the other hand, if you feel an internal compulsion to work — particularly overwhelming emotions and negative thoughts — you might be a workaholic.

While some variations in definitions exist, workaholics generally exhibit these three traits:

  1. They feel compelled to work due to internal pressures.
  2. They persistently think about work off-hours and across different settings.
  3. They work beyond what is reasonably expected despite consequences to their health, well-being, and relationships.

Psychotherapist Bryan Robinson sums it up succinctly: “Workaholism is not defined by hours. It’s defined by what’s going on inside of us.”

Signs and Symptoms of Work Addiction

How can you tell if you’re simply a hard worker or if your obsession runs a little too deep? Here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • You can’t remember the last time you took a sick day.
  • You think about work all the time, including when you’re trying to relax.
  • You respond to emails immediately, even if they’re not urgent.
  • You don’t trust other people on your team to do the job to your standards.
  • Your relationships are fading because you’re preoccupied with work.
  • You have trouble “switching off” at night.
  • You have stress-related nightmares or insomnia.
  • You are irritable, impatient, or have angry outbursts.
  • You have physical symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath.
  • More often than not, you feel inadequate and judge yourself for not getting enough done.

Over time, workaholics experience breakdown syndrome. They seem fine on the outside, but on the inside, it’s chaos. One study of employees at a large financial consulting firm found that people with a compulsive work mentality reported more headaches, insomnia, and weight gain. Worst of all, they had a higher risk of metabolic syndrome, which contributes to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Work addiction also wreaks havoc on family life. Children of workaholics scored 72 percent higher on measures of depression than children of alcoholics. And spouses of workaholics (perhaps unsurprisingly) report being unhappy in their marriages. After all, it’s hard to love someone who is never present, physically or emotionally.

Shifting to Healthy Hustle

It’s no secret that, today, being crazy busy is a way of life. Bosses are demanding. Companies expect commitment.

Some clients come to me thinking that changing jobs or career paths will magically solve the problem. Unfortunately, this quick fix is rarely the solution. Many people just end up carrying their workaholic ways with them into a new role.

It is possible to find a middle ground of healthy hustle — one where you can go big and be ambitious without burning out. Once you start to shift your habits and thoughts, you can break the cycle of addictive overworking.

1. Own Up to Consequences

Identify the hidden payoff of your overworking addiction. People generally don’t keep repeating a behavior unless they get some positive benefit from it. Is staying late at the office a way to avoid your marital problems? Does having a lot of tasks on your to-do list meet a deeper psychological need to feel validated?

2. Confront the Costs

Get radically honest about what workaholism is costing you. Talk to your friends and family about how your habits have affected them. Ask what changes they’d like to see. You’ll probably find that instead of being critical, they’ll express how much they miss you and care about seeing you happy.

3. Ditch the All-or-Nothing Mindset

You’re not a failure because you didn’t accomplish every item on your to-do list. You’re not lazy if you take one weekend off (or two!) from pursuing multiple side gigs. Catch yourself when you veer into this type of unhelpful thinking.

Have some compassion for yourself. Cut yourself some slack. You’re not perfect; you’re human. Remove the words “I should” from your vocabulary. Swap “I’m busy” with “I’m focused.” Only say things to yourself that you would say to a close friend.

4. Imagine Your Best Self

Are you bleary-eyed, hunched over your desk? Or are you relaxed, well-rested, and engaged in a task that brings out your strengths? My guess is the latter. The “Best Possible Self” exercise comes from positive psychology research. It’s one you can use to fuel a more fulfilling vision for your life — one where your work inspires joy, not dread.

5. Be Deliberate About Boundaries

Set clear limits around your schedule, especially if you work from home, where the separation between on/off hours blends. Practice saying no more often. Instead of letting stress or a desire for approval drive you to take on too much, push back on demands, negotiate responsibilities, and be very clear about expectations.

6. Bookend Your Days

Begin the day with morning ritual that leaves you feeling happy. It’ll help you create a sense of mastery and self-control, all before you step foot in the office or open your inbox. End the day with a fun activity so you have a reason to leave work on time. It also gives you something to look forward to and keeps rumination at bay. Make sure your evening routine helps you wind down and clear your head before bed.

7. Control Your Stress

Right now, work is a coping mechanism that helps you avoid uncomfortable feelings. Luckily, you can get better at managing difficult emotions instead of turning to work to numb out. One of my favorite tools is a simple self-inventory called HALT, which involves periodically asking yourself if you are:

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired

This practice is widely used to aid addiction recovery. It’s an effective way to self-monitor so you can stay in control and make decisions that better serve you.

8. Schedule Self-Care

Many of my self-professed Type A clients prefer reframing downtime as recovery time instead. This helps them be more proactive and intentional about scheduling it.

If workaholism is starting to affect your life, get the right treatment. Find support through your doctor, therapy, or a support group like Workaholics Anonymous.

Finally, keep in mind that change happens slowly. Workaholic habits take a lifetime to form. Be patient with yourself. You’re undoing decades of conditioning. Commit to making space in your life for more than just work. That’s a step forward.