The term workaholism was coined in 1971 by minister and psychologist Wayne Oates, who described workaholism as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”
For decades, the North American business culture has been marked by bleary-eyed workers who feel trapped on a workaholic treadmill. 20 years in the corporate world gave me a front row seat to this fear-based obsession with work. Unfortunately, the church world has been influenced deeply by our North American culture when it comes to work pace.
I’ve heard well-meaning church leaders say “There’s no time to stop until the work is done.” News flash: the work of ministry is never done. So, does that mean we can never stop to catch our breath? Does it mean we can’t pause long enough to recharge our emotional and physical batteries? Some leaders live by the motto: “I don’t stop until I drop.” I reject that workaholic and unsound line of thinking.
Please understand: I’m not blowing the trumpet for laziness. I’ve had a few pastors tell me: “I can hardly take these 32-hour weeks.” Really? I’m not in favor of counting hours, I’m much more in favor of counting outcomes. But seriously, if a 30-hour workweek is wearing you out, something is wrong. Here’s the truth: if you’re not a self-starter, don’t have a big vision, have little or no accountability in your life, leadership can become a place of idleness. That being said, I’m deeply concerned about the crazy pace most of my pastor friends keep. Many of them overwork constantly, and quite of few lack awareness that they’ve slipped into a workaholic pattern.
So, how do you determine if you’ve crossed the line from hard work into workaholism? How do you know if you’re a workaholic?
You think about work when you’re not working
Workaholics spend their leisure time thinking about how to free up more time for work. I applaud leaders who learn to be more productive. But some leaders take this up several notches by dreaming about how they can cram more work into their day.
Lifeway Research conducted a survey in 2013 revealing 50% of pastors work between 50-70 hours per week. A 50-70-hour week is necessary at times. 50-70 hours per week every week is unsustainable. If you think about work when you’re not working. . . you might be a workaholic.
You work as an antidote to feelings of guilt, anxiety, or depression
Work can have an analgesic effect. It can numb emotional pain. Work has the ability to distract us enough so we don’t have to take an honest look at ourselves. We think: “I’m too busy to do personal inventory!” or “I’ve got so much to do there’s no time to stop and self-evaluate!” I wonder if our workaholic tendencies are a reflexive response to being afraid of what we’ll discover about ourselves if we slow down for a bit? If you use work to deaden the pain of guilt, anxiety, or depression. . . you might be a workaholic.
Other people have told you to “slow down”
I kept a crazy pace during college. I had class fifteen hours each week, studied about fifty hours each week, worked twenty hours weekly at a part time job, and played intramural athletics. I slept 4-5 hours per night. Total craziness. One of my brothers periodically would remind me, “John, you need to stop and smell the roses.” In other words, quit running a hundred miles an hour and learn to enjoy some college moments.
While we aren’t always aware when we’ve reached our limit, those who know us best often are aware. Listen to them. Learn how to punch out after a full day of work. If you can’t slow down even when those who love you beg you to. . . you might be a workaholic
You get stressed out when trying to relax
In our pedal-to-the-metal world, we’ve lost the concept of stopping points; the idea of a healthy rhythm between work and rest is foreign to us. Because we don’t know when to stop, or feel guilty when we do, we get fidgety when we’re doing nothing “important.” Vacations become torturous to the workaholic because only work brings a sense of worth. The adrenaline addiction inherent in workaholism make relaxing difficult. Slowing down feels like withdrawal from crack. If you have a hard time relaxing. . . you might be a workaholic.
Hobbies, friendships, and exercise get put on the backburner
When was the last time you hung out with friends—just to hang out? No agenda, no purpose other than to laugh and have fun? When was the last time you participated in recreational activity you enjoy? The last time you hit the gym? Went for a run? A walk? A swim? If you have to think more than 30 seconds about the last time you did any of these activities. . . you might be a workaholic.
Work is negatively affecting your health
One Sunday I ran into my good friend Joe (not his real name) at church. I asked Joe how life was going, and he mentioned to me casually he had been sick 76 days during the past year. 76 days! I responded, “Joe, we need to have breakfast.” We met a few weeks later, and talked about his workaholism (he was putting in 100-hour weeks), and what might be driving it in his life.
I used to work so many hours, that as soon as vacation time arrived, my body reacted to months of overworking by getting ill. It was like clockwork. My kids would say: “Dad, you always get sick on vacation.” If you are constantly dealing with sinus infections, stomach flu, respiratory illness, and the like. . . you might be a workaholic.
If after reading the above, you suspect workaholism might be a problem for you, get help now. Reach out to a friend, a mentor, or a counselor. Work with them to uncover what’s at the root of your workaholic addiction. Figure out what’s broken inside of you that drives you to work way beyond reasonable limits.
There is life outside of workaholism. A healthy rhythm of work and rest is reachable for you. Your spouse and children need you to locate that rhythm. Your body and mind need you to locate that rhythm. The people you lead need you to locate that rhythm.
I’m rooting and praying for you!