A guide to high work performance without workaholism

Do you ever think about work in your free time, or do work-related tasks outside of your working hours? Most people do, especially those who like their job and want to be successful at it and achieve high work performance. They put extra effort in it, they come up with great ideas when they’re not in the office, they want to stay on top by working extra hours now and then.

The tricky thing is though, if you want to achieve a high job performance, how do you know if your motivation and behaviour is healthy or if you’ve fallen into a trap of workaholism?

The line between healthy work engagement and workaholism is thin. That is why in this blog post, we will guide you through recognizing the differences between healthy, engaged work behaviours and not-so-healthy workaholism, so that you can achieve high work performance without sacrificing your health and well-being. We will give some tricks and tactics on how to stay on the ‘bright-side’ of high work performance and remain engaged without falling into workaholism.

As always, our team of experts in neuroscience and psychology have gone through over 50 scientific studies related to work performance and engagement, to provide you with this detailed, science-based guide to healthy job performance.


What is healthy, high work performance and engagement?

Healthy work performance is usually experienced by engaged employees, so those who like their jobs, they put effort in it, take initiative and show loyalty. Work engagement is characterized by high levels of energy at work, feeling absorbed in what you do, and a high level of dedication. Radiating energy and keeping up the spirits high at work sounds good, right?

Yet, there is a dark side of devoting yourself to work ‘too much’ when you aim for high job performance – you are at a risk of becoming a workaholic. Workaholic is a person addicted to work, someone who works excessively hard, but in a compulsive-obsessive way. In other words, workaholism is an inner drive to work that is very hard to resist.

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As a result – it may look like you’re highly engaged in your work and you strive for high performance: you’re putting those extra hours in, talking about work at home, checking your work emails whenever you can… However, if those behaviours result from workaholism, rather than engagement, there is a price to pay. Your stress levels might be rocketing, you are at a high risk of burnout, your life and work satisfaction levels are rather low. Not exactly a good pay-off, considering how much work and effort you put in to achieve high work performance.

work stress

source – dnaindia.com

To check if you are, indeed, at a risk of falling into workaholism, instead of maintaining healthy levels of high work performance, answer the questions below:

Over the last 6 months have you:

  • Thought of how you could free up more time to work?
  • Spent much more time working than initially intended?
  • Worked in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression?
  • Been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them?
  • Become stressed if you have been prohibited from working?
  • Deprioritized hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work? Worked so much that it has negatively influenced your health?

If your answered ‘yes’ to at least 3 of those questions – you need to watch out, to make sure your work performance and engagement is healthy.

That is why in this post, we will walk you through the differences between healthy and unhealthy high work performance, to ensure your spirit is high and you’re happy and engaged at what you do. We will also give you tips and tricks on how to do it!


Healthy high work performance vs. workaholism

Workaholism, similarly to work engagement, has three main components:

  • How you feel – emotions and affect
  • What you think – cognition and thinking
  • What you do – behaviour


The emotional domain of workaholism  

One of the important reasons that may push some people towards workaholism is the need to escape personal problems. For example, they may choose to overindulge in work, if they are facing some issues on the private front. Focusing on work is for them a coping strategy: high work performance becomes a way to avoid negative feelings such guilt, anxiety or even depression.

So, do you feel like work is your ‘safe-zone’, where you don’t have to think of issues related to your private life? While using work as a ‘break’ from private life is ok from time to time – we all do it, you need to watch out! You can become stressed if you are barred from working, if your ‘safe-zone’ is out of reach. High work performance and pushing yourself more is awesome, but as long as you do it for the right reasons (e.g., enjoying what you do). If you don’t do it for the right reasons – your mental and physical well-being will suffer.

How do you deal with it?

  1. You need to identify the reasons why you want to work more or put some extra effort in. To do so, you can channel your inner child and play a game of ‘Why’s’:

You know how kids can be very curious and persistent when asking questions? For every answer they get, they ask more questions, for example, ‘Why do I need to go to bed now?’, ‘so that you get enough sleep’, ‘why do I need to get enough sleep?’, ‘so that you are rested tomorrow’, ‘why do I need to be rested tomorrow?’…the list of questions goes on and on.

That is exactly what you need to do. Start from asking yourself: ‘why do I want to do it’, whether it’s a specific project you want to work on, or a general question. Write down everything: create a chain of questions and answers, by asking yourself ‘but why?’ over and over again. Make sure the answers are focused on you and how you feel, not the general rules and facts – for example ‘I feel this is an important part of my job’ versus ‘it’s in my job description’. That way, you can tap into your emotions in a very simple way.

  1. Write down a series of at least 10 ‘why’s’ and answers. If you are in a flow, carry on! However, 10 should be a good starting point. The answers you have written down should give you a better clarity about emotional motivation behind your work habits and need for high work performance.
  2. Now, this is the time to reflect and evaluate what you have written. What are the reasons behind your high work performance? To evaluate them, ask yourself two questions:

– Does it make you feel good?

– Is the motivation for your job performance coming from within you (as opposed to external motivations and pressures)?

If you answered yes to both – hooray, you’re on the right track and your reasons to work harder are healthy. If, however, they do not make you feel good or they result from external pressures – the extra time and effort you put in might not be worth it. If you carry on with your high work performance – there might be some damage to your mental and physical well-being.

damage of high work performance

source – incimages.com


The cognitive domain of workaholism

The way you think affects what you do and how you feel. Workaholism involves constantly thinking about work. It doesn’t matter whether those thoughts are negative (‘I’m stressing out about a deadline’) or positive (‘I cannot wait to work on that project’) – constant focus on work is not a good sign. Of course, if you are passionate about what you do and you truly enjoy your work, you will think about it outside of the typical 9-5 hours. That’s ok! What is rather an alarming signal though, is when you cannot switch it off. If work is constantly on your mind – that persistent, nagging thinking about your job, regardless of the situation and circumstances – it becomes unhealthy. If you also think often how to find more time for work, you need to watch out, this can a be a signal for workaholism.

cognitive domain of workaholism

source – capiche.us

So, what can you do about it?

While it is virtually impossible to stop yourself from thinking about something, you can certainly learn how to shift your focus. The classic example of a white elephant – if I told you not to think about white elephant for a minute, I guarantee that is what you will be thinking about. However, you can find yourself a substitute for a white elephant, for example red flowers. If I ask you not think about an elephant – you can do it by focusing on your substitute, so red flowers. Sounds easy, right?

1. To apply that in cognitive domain of workaholism to help you achieve high work performance in a healthy way, you need to first find yourself a substitute for your work focus. For example, if there is a big project that you’re working on and it’s constantly on your mind, find yourself a substitute thought. It should be something interesting enough to catch your attention, for example:

  • Something you are looking forward to: such as meeting a friend, a party you’re going to, a new movie or a book coming out.
  • A project that is not related to work, for example planning holidays, organizing a dinner for friends, redecorating your living room.
  • A specific dream or a goal that is not related to work, for example getting more fit, learning a new language, or starting dancing class.

Choose one substitute thought, something that makes you excited and you can easily focus on. It has to be also broad enough – so that you can think about it over and over again.

2. Now, set up some work-free time, when you choose not to think about your work ‘white elephant’. This is the time when you can fully recharge.

3. Whenever your mind drifts off towards the working topic you have chosen not to think about, anchor your attention on your substitute thought instead. By doing so, you can ensure that you’re not overthinking about work, which in turn, helps you to achieve high work performance without falling into a trap of workaholism.

work-free time

source – unsplashed.com


The behavioural domain of workaholism

Your behaviours are a great indicator of whether your work performance and engagement levels are healthy. It is important to recognize whether time management and schedule are working to your advantage. Although it may feel like doing extra work will benefit your progress at work, it might backfire and lead you to burnout. That in turn, will do you no favors – recovering from burnout takes time and you’ll most likely end up stalling your progress.

So, workaholism is characterized by inability to stop thinking about work. It also means that you are working longer hours than expected, and other activities, such as hobbies, exercise, leisure, time with family and friends, are becoming less and less important. So, while it is perfectly fine to skip a social commitment once in a while, because you want to finish that big project you are working on, you need to keep in check how often does it happen, and how does it affect your work-life balance.

work life balance

source – your24hcoach.com

Here is how to do it:

1. Every week set up a clear number of hours you want to spend working. You may choose to work the traditional 40 hours week, or choose a higher number if you know there will be a lot to do that week. The most important thing is to make this number realistic and concrete.

2. Once you have the number of working hours, you can now allocate some time for non-work activities. Make a list of 3 to 5 things you enjoy doing most outside of work. It can be reading, sports, meeting a friend, going to the cinema, a date night with your partner, anything that gives you joy outside of work.

For each activity, assign the amount of time you want to spend on it. You don’t have to do the same stuff every week – your non-work activities can change, depending on what you would like to do in a particular week. The amount of time can also change: you may want to spend 4 hours on reading this week because you just got a new book that you really want to read, but the week after you might want to reduce it to 1 hour.

3. Now write down in your organizer or a calendar your estimations, for example:

Week of 11/02

Work – 48 hours

Reading – 4 hours

Gym – 2 hours

Dinner with friends – 3 hours

Shopping – 1 hour.

4. Once you have it all written down, treat it all as a commitment, that you promised yourself to do. Make sure you don’t back out of the non-work related activities. They are important to help you reduce work stress, so that you can keep up high job performance and energy.

5.Revise your hours on weekly basis. It is especially important to do it during busy weeks at work, so that you don’t forget to take good care of yourself and avoid burning out.

avoid burn out

source – incimages.com


Recap of the ultimate guide to healthy high work performance

By following our guide, you can learn simple methods on how to ensure that your high work performance is, indeed, healthy and good for you, and that you avoid falling into workaholism trap. Here is a recap of what we discussed in this post:

Being highly motivated and engaged at work is good for you – it helps you achieve high job performance. However, you need to keep healthy boundaries and look after yourself, to ensure you are giving your best at work. You can maintain healthy level of work performance and avoid workaholic behaviours by our tactics:

  • Identify the motives and emotions behind your work engagement, using the ‘but why?’ technique.
  • Stop yourself from overthinking about work, by finding a ‘substitute’ thought to anchor your attention.
  • Set up a clear schedule in advance to stick to healthy working hours.

Remember, by addressing your emotions, thinking and behaviours, you can ensure that your high performance at work is healthy!