Working hard is not always workaholism, and qualities associated with workaholism are not always bad.

Share story

Being a workaholic is normally thought of as undesirable. Indeed, an all-consuming obsession with work can damage your health (physical and mental), your relationships (personal and professional) and even — ironically — your career.

Too often, however, a dedication to one’s calling and the willingness to work hard at it are also labeled as workaholism. The term is thrown around quite a lot, especially by those who are less inclined to put forth that much effort and may feel left in your wake.

The key, as with so many things, is balance. Working compulsively at the expense of all other pursuits is bad. Expecting good things to fall in your lap, while belittling those who do work hard, is equally deleterious.

It may help to think about what workaholism is not. You are not a workaholic if you check email on your days off, occasionally skip lunch to finish a project, or even if you sometimes find yourself thinking about your job while you’re at the movies, on vacation or celebrating holidays with your family. Having a strong work ethic is not a psychological condition that needs repairing.

In fact, the ability to work long and intensively is not only great for your career, it can be a source of satisfaction and joy. Losing yourself in a larger cause is one of life’s pleasures. Being known as an effective, diligent worker is an excellent reputation to have.

Of course, you do need to be careful about how much and how often you choose your profession or vocation over your personal life. Ask yourself if you have trouble delegating, if you’re unwilling to take vacations or if your work is beginning to feel joyless — those are key signs of incipient workaholism. Re-examine your priorities every so often. Check in with your loved ones — do they feel neglected? Resentful?

If so, you may need to recalibrate. Punctuate periods of intense effort with rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. Make sure you dedicate a few hours each day entirely to your family, yourself or your nonprofessional goals.

Your work life, just like life in general, is like bicycling on a long, hilly road. Sometimes you need to redouble your efforts; sometimes you can coast. Either way, be sure to enjoy the ride.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at