Might as well face it — you’re addicted to work! With the lazy days of summer come holidays and breaks from work. But for some, vacation time prompts anxiety and distress.
If you find it hard to adapt to prolonged unstructured periods of leisure, you might be suffering from Work Withdrawal Syndrome (WWS).
What are the signs?
- Dread over looming time off (“What am I going to do with myself?”)
- Guilt over not doing anything “productive”
- Inability to stop thinking about work
- Compulsive checking of work-related emails
- Restlessness, irritability, and difficulty relaxing
- Obsessing over cramming leisure time with structured activities when faced with an empty schedule
- Onset of depression coinciding with vacations
WWS is an offshoot of workaholism. Though not formally defined as a mental disorder, workaholism is distinct from mere devotion to career or work. As with other addictive behaviors, you cross the line from normal when your focus on job-related activities becomes destructive to your relationships and your personal health.
Unfortunately, many societal imperatives point us in the direction of excessive conscientiousness and career orientation. In productivity-fixated Japan, for example, workaholism culminating in exhaustion and death is a well-documented phenomenon, dubbed karoshi.
Why does WWS occur? There may actually be biochemical reasons, rooted in the physiology of addiction.
As in compulsive exercise (“no pain, no gain”, “the runner’s high”), “cutting” (the self-infliction of wounds) or anorexia (self-imposed starvation), there is a powerful reward system at play in excess work — the endorphins, or internal opiates.
Some can get hooked on the internal sensation caused by endorphins released by overwork. When work stops, the consequent plunge in endorphin production can literally cause unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal, not unlike the “Jonesing” sensation some experience after abusing heroin, prescription painkillers, or alcohol.
Additionally, some people are literally hooked on stress. Emergencies and deadlines trigger release of powerful hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that deliver a wake-up call to the body. Absent the stimulation of work, levels of these bracing chemicals plummet, and stress addicts may experience a crash.
Additionally, for some, overwork is an antidote to depression or social isolation, or it may mask a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder or attention deficit disorder.
What can be done about WWS? First, as with all addictions, acknowledging the problem is the first step toward resolution. Denial will perpetuate the addictive cycle. Once you do that, here are some tips that might help:
1. Try cultivating a vacation “style.”
Create a light wish list of low-key, fun projects you don’t get around to while working, but avoid loading your holiday schedule with a daunting menu of scheduled activities.
2. Develop a hobby.
Working with your hands really gets you out of your head.
3. Learn to live with unstructured time (easier said than done!).
Leave an “away” message on your business email and arrange for coverage at your office or business. Resist the temptation to “check-in” via email or phone.
4. Get professional help from a psychologist.
If self-help measures don’t help you conquer your leisure distress, it's important to reach out to someone with expertise.
5. Evaluate your work style to make sure you don’t descend into patterns of workaholism.
This is the best way to ensure that you don't experience WWS when you have time off!