Can’t stop working when you know it’s time to quit? You’re not alone. Work addictions affect approximately 30% of the population. Some people work too much because of issues with self-esteem or consumerism. But for a smaller subgroup, the issue might be an overlap between workaholism and OCD.
How many people with OCD are workaholics? We don’t really have a statistic for that–but I can tell you that it’s a story I hear over and over again. We can’t stop obsessing, we can’t stop ritualizing, and we definitely can’t stop working.
The overlap between workaholism and OCD–particularly scrupulosity–can be segmented into three main areas:
- Turning to our career and work as an “escape” from the uncomfortable ruminations of OCD
- Having an unexplained inability to transition from one task to another; getting stuck in “work” mode
- Suffering from moral or spiritual obsessions about work itself (such as the urge to be a “witness” at work, to complete work “perfectly,” to avoid laziness, or to clock in and out accurately)
Whichever one describes your own workaholism and OCD the best, you need a break. Jesus invited the weary and tired ones to come to Him for rest. We serve a rest-giving Lord, not an evil taskmaster. In this post, I want to share with you important concepts that will allow you to truly begin receiving God’s rest.
Workaholism as an Escape from OCD
Perhaps the simplest-to-explain connection between overwork and OCD is the need for escape. In a previous post, I discussed the relationship between addictive behavior and OCD. One of the reasons people with obsessive-compulsive disorder abuse alcohol and other addictive substances is because they offer momentary relief from the anxiety.
And that’s why many of us abuse our work life, as well.
But let’s add some perspective here. Working hard at something–and enjoying the emotional and financial benefits of a job well done–is a very biblical thing. The wise man Solomon said,
Do you see a man who excels in his work?Proverbs 22:29
He will stand before kings.
We are told to do our work “heartily” (Colossians 3:23) and “with all our might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 “works willingly with her hands” and begins her duties before the sun is up.
Diligent, purposeful work is a good thing.
But when it becomes a tactic for escapism…and snowballs into an addictive behavior that you can’t stop…
That’s when we need to back up a bit.
If you’re struggling with both workaholism and OCD, ask yourself: how detrimental is my work addiction to my overall life satisfaction? Is it affecting my family relationships and/or my physical health? Working a lot might help me drown out the anxious thoughts of OCD, but is it really a long-term solution?
The first step to making healthy changes is to recognize when our behavior is no longer “working” for us anymore.
Workaholism and OCD: The Sticky Transitions Trap
A second area of overlap between workaholism and OCD relates to transition time.
I originally connected the dots on OCD and transitions from an article by Janet Singer, who became an advocate for the OCD community when her son was diagnosed with a crippling case of it. I read her article about OCD and time management, and the light bulb clicked on.
Many of our struggles–time management, workaholism, excessive rumination, anger and irritability–can be traced back to a fundamental issue with transitions.
It is HARD for us to transition from one thing to another. I talked a bit about this recently when I covered mental rigidity in OCD. We know the OCD brain is deficient in its ability to send “completion” signals. The “Feeling of Knowing” hypothesis is used to explain brain abnormalities in OCD patients. It suggests that we suffer from an inability to achieve a “feeling of knowing” that we have completed a specific task.
In any normal population, it is believed that feelings of anxiety move human beings to actions that will help us avoid danger; after the action is completed, we experience a release of anxiety that feels good. People with OCD, however, might experience only a fraction of that release. We aren’t sure we’ve completed the action fully. Without sufficient mental and emotional reward, we continue to loop through the same action, hoping for that “feel-good” release of having completed that important activity.
This is part of why it’s difficult to transition to different tasks (or transition out of work and into family time). We may have feelings of anxiety about needing to complete our “work” before we enjoy our “play,” but we never get the signal that we’ve done enough work or done it properly.
It’s not very different from other OCD themes that manifest as repetitive handwashing or eternally looping confessions.
We don’t want to move on until we feel like we’ve done it just right. What we’re really yearning for is the neurological reward–that rush of feel-goodness that comes when our brain lets us off the hook. But the OCD brain is stingy in handing out rewards of this kind.
So for some of us, our inability to transition well can leave us anxious, irritable, and even angry. Not fun!
What we need to do is give ourselves less work and more transition time.
My Story With Developing Transition Time
I’ve always been the kind of girl to pack as much work into a day as possible.
Usually, this means I create exhaustive to-do lists of everything I can fit into a 16-hour day. Next to each task on the list, I write a number for how long it ought to take me to complete it. Then I keep adding until I have roughly 16 hours of activities (of course, I include personal tasks such as eating and showering to make sure I don’t “overbook” by 16 hour allotment).
The problem is that 16 hours’ worth of tasks won’t fit into a 16-hour day.
For me, it almost never happened, even though I got pretty good at estimating how long I ought to take for various tasks.
The problem is that we need time for transitioning. Moving like a rapid-fire machine from one task to another creates a buildup of nervous energy–which is not a helpful thing for already-anxious people like us–and we begin underperforming. Working from nervous energy, we complete less than we planned, and fail to achieve the neurological “reward” we’ve been working towards (i.e. being able to cross the last item off the list and feel the “complete” signal).
Add this up over a few days, and we start to feel like a failure…which prompts us to work harder to make up for it.
What a mess!
Some time ago, I began battling my own compulsive work problem by giving myself 6-hour work days (not including personal tasks like eating and showering). I still make lists with time estimates penciled in next to each task, but I stop at 6 hours’ worth of tasks. It almost sounds ridiculous, right? But I work slowly, giving myself “think time” and transition time, typically spreading 6 hours of work out over the full work day.
The crazy thing is that I get almost the same amount of work done as I did before, but I work peacefully and I feel a whole lot better every evening.
Clocking In, Clocking Out
A common moral obsession relating to work is, “have I been completely honest about clocking in and clocking out?”
Some people work just as hard or harder than everyone else but stress themselves about clocking in five minutes late. They feel uncomfortable, thinking they are “lying” or cheating their employer. Often, these people will compensate (staying five minutes late on the job) but sometimes they will overcompensate, too–perhaps staying an extra fifteen minutes, “just to make sure.”
This fastidious attention to detail can be a very good thing. It reflects your spirit of honesty, virtue, and diligence. And the Bible certainly supports the idea of using time wisely (Ephesians 5:16).
But if our attempt to be “honest” with our time is causing us constant anxiety, we need to ask ourselves if we’re doing something wrong. Sometimes, we can strive for honesty but miss the big picture. What do our employers actually care about when it comes to clocking in and clocking out?
Let’s remember how our society is set up. Employees go to work every day and give something they have (productivity) in exchange for something their employers have (money and benefits). “Employment” is an agreement that you will supply a certain amount of productivity for money and benefits of equal value.
Humane, morally responsible employers recognize that we are human beings, not cogs in a giant machine. Therefore, every human being is unique. Our productivity ebbs and flows for a number of different factors. We might be tired and stressed one day but calm and focused the next. We might be five minutes short every day this week, but will put in an extra hour of volunteer effort when a work emergency arises.
The bottom line is that our averages balance out. We are not machines, capable of mathematically precise outputs every day. Try to look at your monthly averages rather than your daily performance.
If you’re actually ripping off your employer by ten hours every month, I would recommend reform…but that’s probably not your situation. If you have OCD, this is probably a matter of workaholism and OCD trying to give you a guilt trip.
And when it comes to the false guilt of OCD, we learn to ignore it and move on, going forward freely by faith.
If you’re a workaholic who happens to have OCD, don’t worry! This doesn’t have to define you.
A few things we’ve discussed that can be helpful for you:
- Try to analyze whether your escapism is truly serving your long-term needs or not.
- Give yourself realistic time buffers and transition time so you can be sure to complete everything you want to complete each day. This might mean cutting out extra activities and commitments, but your tender brain will thank you.
- Look at your work performance with a birds-eye view, factoring in averages rather than focusing on your two minute lateness of the day. Ask your colleagues what they think. If you’re being too hard on yourself, they’ll let you know.
Ultimately, our time belongs to God, and He has claims upon it. You might be tempted to think that God expects you to put every moment to the test, and that every new day needs to outperform the last.
Don’t be deceived. Our God is a God of restfulness.
Certainly, there are some couch potatoes that need to have a fire lit under their tails–but if you’re struggling with obsessive-compulsive workaholism, you’re probably not one of those people. On the contrary, you probably need to remember the sabbath commandment, embrace the rest that God has for us, and stop expecting so much from yourself.
May our loving Lord help you realize just how much He wants you to be at peace!
Best wishes on the journey,