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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

I Was a Burned-Out Workaholic for 20 Years—Till This Changed Everything

I've always been a hard worker and, I admit it, an overachiever. Yet I was shocked when I was diagnosed as a workaholic. Here's how I got healthy again.

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When being productive equals self-worth

“We live in a time where the ‘go big or go home’ mentality reigns, including at work,” says Melody Wilding, a life coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious women strive for successful careers and balanced lives. “In order to feel good about yourself, you have to be constantly productive,” she explains—and that was the trap I had fallen into. It leads to burnout, which clinically speaking is exhaustion, depression, and anxiety. It’s a mental health problem becoming increasingly common in western countries, and Americans seem to burn out faster than workers in other countries.

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Burnout sneaks up on you

The symptoms of burnout are incremental. They start small and are easy to ignore as just part of the normal stress that comes with modern life. But the longer you dismiss them, the worse burnout symptoms get. For me, what started as minor headaches, irritation at inefficiency, and difficulty concentrating soon turned into sleeping only a couple hours a night, a resting heart rate of 140 (normal is between 60 and 100 beats per minute), and snap judgments about other people. I soon lost the ability to find pleasure in anything in my world. Here are 7 burnout symptoms everyone should watch for.

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focused african american businessman typing on computer keyboard in officeLightField Studios/Shutterstock

Working harder won’t get you what you need

I spent most of my career as a government policy executive. I tried hard to be a caring boss and easy-to-work-with colleague, to go beyond what was asked, and to be as helpful as I could to everyone. But I didn’t realize the sacrifices I was making in my health, happiness, and relationships to do it.

When things got tough, I just did more of what had always worked for me in the past. I worked longer and harder. But I didn’t realize that this wasn’t sustainable. I lost the capacity to even see that working harder was actually bringing me fewer of the emotional rewards I usually got from doing a good job.

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71 Easy Ways to Prevent Type 2 DiabetesYentafern/Shutterstock

First, admit to the problem

When I finally went to see my doctor about my lack of energy and health issues, she diagnosed me with exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and workaholism. I now understand that what I thought was normal—the adrenaline rush from helping others and from checking something off my to-do list—are, indeed, clear indicators of workaholism. “Workaholics feel inner pressure to work beyond what’s reasonable, to the point where their health and relationships suffer,” says Wilding, who offers advice on work addiction. Check out these 8 subtle signs of workaholism.

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Senior businesswoman reading some documents at coffee shop. Female in casuals sitting at cafe table with laptop reading business report.Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

You have to commit to real change

At first, I followed my doctor’s advice, but I didn’t really take it to heart. I made some small changes and I started to feel better, and then returned to work as soon as she let me. That’s when I relapsed into burnout. Social worker Krystal Kavita Jagoo says that’s normal: “Relapse is often part of the recovery process.”
Wilding counsels that “unless you do the deeper, inner work to change your unhealthy patterns, you’re just going to repeat them.”

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Male psychiatrist making notes with his patient near byPressmaster/Shutterstock

Consider therapy

After the second burnout, I finally realized I needed to change my habits. I went on sick leave, took anti-anxiety/antidepressant medication, did kundalini yoga, and tried to recreate what had formerly been fun for me. Most importantly, I worked with a cognitive behavioral therapist to understand what motivated me to keep working regardless of how it was hurting me.
Through CBT, I figured out what drives me, what my priorities are, and how it’s important to say no and set boundaries in order to achieve those priorities. I now give myself credit for my achievements, big and small. I’m much better at living in the moment rather than focusing on the next items on my to-do list or dwelling on what I’ve just done that didn’t go perfectly. Learn more about cognitive behavioral therapy.

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Woman with bills and calculator. Woman using calculator to calculate bills at the table in office. Calculation of costs.MIND AND I/Shutterstock

It’s not selfish to be selfish

That was the lesson I truly needed to learn: Putting myself first. It’s something you hear every time you get on a plane: Put on your own oxygen mask first, before you try to help anyone else. Basically, if you want to be good at taking care of others, you need to be happy and healthy yourself first. And you’re the only person who can do that for yourself.

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Laptop with phone and coffee stand on wooden tableYulai Studio/Shutterstock

There’s no permanent cure

Like alcoholism, I’ll always be at risk of relapsing into my workaholic ways. I still fight the “shoulds”—that I should be working or should be more productive. But I’m much more aware of my habits and choices and I now listen to what my body is telling me.

The best part is that I’m better at what I do, now when I give myself breaks. Along with deadlines and meetings, I schedule exercise and fun stuff too. Learn the productivity tips you should use to get through your day well-adjusted.

With regular effort, I’m now able to stay well. I just remember the secret to being the productive, helpful, and kind person I want to be—taking care of myself first.

Johanna Read
Johanna Read, Canadian writer and photographer, writes about travel (including under COVID-19), wildlife, food, health and wellness, and responsible tourism. She aims to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Johanna also writes occasionally about public policy, leadership, and management. She draws on her management consulting work (where she specializes in organizational culture and employee wellness) and on her background as a Government of Canada policy executive. Her BAH (psychology and sociology) and MPA (health policy) are from Queen's University. Johanna's bylines include Reader's Digest, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, USA Today, and Canadian Traveller. See her portfolio; follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.