6 Ways Being a Workaholic Can Take a Toll on Your Health

In a culture of side hustles and productivity hacks, workaholism is placed on a pedestal. We glorify people who multitask, skimp on sleep and get all the things done. We wear the title of "workaholic" as a badge of honor, like an initiation into a club of hard workers. Top it off with free WiFi around every corner, and workaholism is just a click away.

But at what expense? Sure, work is important. Many of us need to work so we can build skills and financially support ourselves and loved ones. Work can also provide an amazing sense of fulfillment, confidence and purpose. Yet, if work is the driving force behind your every move, you might end up with a costly fee: your health.

What is a Workaholic, Exactly?

Somewhere in between the "grind" and "hustle," workaholism has become synonymous with hard work. But contrary to popular belief, workaholics and hard workers aren't the same.

Workaholism isn't about loving your job or picking up extra shifts. It's not even about professional efficiency and to-do lists. Instead, workaholism is characterized by how much you value work, especially when compared to other areas of life.

According to the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, a workaholic is a person who is addicted to work. The term, which was initially defined in 1971, also describes a workaholic as someone who has "the compulsive and uncontrollable need to work incessantly."

Diane Lang, M.A., P.P.C., a counselor and coach in New Jersey, adds that workaholism involves a lifestyle where work affects other aspects of life, including relationships with family and friends. "[For a workaholic,] there isn't much of a social life outside of work," she explains. "Work occupies most of their time and energy."

Workaholics also have difficulty taking time off, whether it's for a lunch break or family vacation. "And if they do [go on vacation], they bring work with them," says Lang. This inability to detach can get in the way of downtime and overall R&R.  

Simply put, a workaholic has a relentless need to work—no ifs, ands or buts.

How Workaholism Can Harm Your Well-Being

Throughout your career, it's normal to experience work-related stress. However, for workaholics, this type of stress becomes the norm. Toss in the mental and physical demands of frequently working, and you've got yourself a myriad of negative health effects. In fact, in a 2019 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, researchers found a clear association between workaholism and poorer quality of life. By gaining a better understanding of six specific ways workaholism impacts your body and mind, you can recognize when it may be time to pump the brakes.

1.  Sleep Troubles 

Many work addicts experience sleep issues. After all, the more time you spend working, the less time you have available to snooze. The irony here is that adequate sleep is crucial for optimal productivity and efficiency at work.

It's also a vicious cycle. According to the National Sleep Foundation, lack of sleep makes your body produce more cortisol, the stress hormone. When your cortisol levels are high, it's more difficult to sleep. It's no wonder workaholics often have symptoms of sleep deprivation, including daytime sleepiness, crankiness and impaired memory.

2. Frequent Headaches

Being a workaholic can also lead to frequent headaches, which may stem from inadequate sleep or the ongoing stress of constantly doing work. In some cases, the stress might be related to the persistent feeling like you should be working.

You may experience tension headaches, which are commonly triggered by stress. These headaches, which cause mild-to-moderate pain, may be episodic or chronic. And if you're prone to migraines, being a workaholic will only worsen your symptoms, as people who get migraines are easily affected by stressful situations. Ultimately, workaholism can be a literal headache.

3. Gastrointestinal Issues

It's common for workaholics to experience gastrointestinal problems. For starters, it can be difficult to focus on making healthy food choices when you've got deadlines on the mind. Changes in eating habits can also lead to an upset stomach, especially if you tend to stress eat or munch on late-night snacks.

Additionally, constant stress shakes up your gut health. You can thank the gut-brain axis (GBA), which connects the intestines and brain via the nervous system. The GBA sends signals in both directions; when one is upset, the other one is the first to know.

Cortisol plays a role as well. A 2015 article in Annals of Gastroenterology explains that when cortisol acts on the brain, the brain sends signals to the gut. The result is an array of stress-related gut issues like abdominal cramps and loose stools.

4. Jaw Pain

A less common side effect of living to work is pain, tenderness or "locking" of the jaw joint. The pain might even spread to the surrounding areas, including the face, neck and shoulders. This is due to temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, which commonly affect workaholics, according to Lang.

Usually, TMJ problems are associated with risk factors like arthritis and jaw injury. But when it comes to workaholism, these issues stem from the body's reaction to stress. For example, when you're feeling tense, you might clench or tighten your jaw without realizing it. The stress might also trigger teeth grinding, which puts pressure on the jaw joint.

5. Mood Changes

Another effect of work addiction is overall emotional changes. Many workaholics experience irritability and mood swings, though it's common to feel waves of sadness. In either case, you aren't your usual self.

There's a scientific explanation for this effect, too. According to a 2015 article in Future Science OA, chronic stress prompts immune cells to release proteins called cytokines. These cytokines send signals to the nervous system, which affects brain activity and behavior. The result? Crankiness and moodiness galore.

6. Burnout

Over time, the stress of the workaholic lifestyle can lead to burnout. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome caused by "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." And while everyone experiences burnout in different ways, it's often characterized by exhaustion, feeling ineffective and a sense of cynicism from the job.

"Burnout [is when] you are mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually fatigued," Lane adds. The warning signs, she says, include the signs of stress mentioned above, so it's crucial to not ignore them.

Burnout isn't just a one-and-done experience, either: A 2017 article in PLoS One states that burnout increases the risk for a variety of mental and physical conditions, including insomnia, musculoskeletal pain and heart disease.

If you feel like you're treading into workaholic waters, it might be time to dive toward a better work-life balance. This starts with reframing your relationship with work, creating space for other areas of life, defining more reasonable expectations and learning to accept self-care as part of your routine. The lasting impact of a life spent stressing over work is damaging, so taking steps now to correct your approach is in your best interest.

Remember, your self-worth isn't hidden in between emails or papers. It's in the way you take care of your health and your relationships with loved ones. By granting yourself time for rest and relaxation, you can start working to live instead of living to work.