Kick a nasty work habit

By Diana Clement

Reformed workaholic Aaron MacDonald used to feel compelled to work at any hour of any day.

Gen-i's mobile marketing manager says his own mobile phone was always turned on and matters of work often took precedence over family and friends.

"Even in my personal time my phone was always by my side and I felt compelled to check what was coming through."

Modern technology can be the bane of workaholics - especially when your email downloads to your phone 24 hours a day, says Trish McLean, director of Retailworld Resourcing (RWR).

"The world is now so fast you do need to manage how you deal with information and demands."

Until last year, MacDonald routinely worked 70 to 80 hours a week. "It was a pretty heavy time commitment," he says.

Typical signs of workaholism can include:

* Being tired and taking on more than you can do.

* You put in extra hours - often on weekends.

* Being distracted at home and unable to unwind.

It is important to recognise the workplace doesn't create workaholics just as a pub doesn't create alcoholics. But unlike alcoholism or a porn addiction workaholism is almost respectable, even though the causes may be the same.

Chronic workaholics can have physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, headaches, heart problems and even stomach ulcers, which can prove counterproductive.

The problem is said to be so bad in Japan that there's even a name for death by overwork - karoshi. Some people think it causes 1000 deaths a year.

The trouble is, workaholics often get recognition and praise, which doesn't help them identify the problem or begin to recover.

MacDonald's story isn't unusual. Most large workplaces have a resident workaholic. They come in different flavours.

There are those who are perfectionists and don't trust others, attention-deficit workaholics who never finish anything and the adrenaline junkies - those who can't start, but scramble to finish projects on time even if it exhausts them.

Some of the text book symptoms suffered by MacDonald included taking on too many projects and failing to delegate as often as he should have.

"I like things to be done a certain way and there was possibly a lack of trust in other people getting it right," he says.

Knowing MacDonald's reputation for getting things done, others in the business would take more time than he had to give. He often found himself double or triple booked.

The turning point came last year when a number of events coincided.

First, friends gave him a reality check: "They looked at the life I was living and said, 'What's going on? It's not healthy'." Then his manager also challenged him on issues such prioritising important work.

At the same time, MacDonald noticed his son was growing up quickly and he was missing key moments in the boy's life.

"I knew what I was doing wasn't right, but there was a bigger compulsion to want to make everyone happy and get everything done," he says.

"I couldn't draw the line between getting things done and looking after my own self."

But one day, the penny dropped. MacDonald's experiences were not unusual. A new survey by recruiter Robert Half International suggests many people are working longer and harder than they were 12 months ago, thanks to the recession.

Thirty-two per cent of New Zealand respondents surveyed in February and March said they were working longer hours and a third of respondents said they were experiencing more stress at work and were also expected to do more work for little or no extra pay.

Nevertheless, good employers don't rate workaholics highly, says McLean: "It's just a danger field. Tired workers aren't productive."

McLean says success is about the quality of what you achieve when at work - not how long you're there for.

Someone who has helped a number of workaholics modify their behaviour is Jane Walker, director of consultancy H2R. But it's not always something they will ever entirely recover from: "It's in their DNA."

The answer is to set in place structures. You are not going to change a workaholic's fundamental characteristics, says Walker. But you can put support mechanisms around it to ensure their health needs are met.

These include getting them to take breaks and block out non-negotiable time for exercise.

One of the biggest issues is getting people to admit they have a problem.

"It is a bit like alcoholism. It's about their motivation to change. If they are not motivated it is very hard to work with them." Often this doesn't happen until after relationship breakdowns.

MacDonald took a DIY approach to solving his problem. He read up about work/life balance and high performance approaches to work and then set in place an approach to overcoming his workaholism.

That involved:

* Working with his manager to identify his most important key tasks.

* Arranging with a friend to help him stick to a schedule that included taking breaks and leaving work on time.

* Re-joining the gym and getting a personal trainer so that he had an important commitment to meet.

* Turning his phone off at home so that he didn't see it blinking when a message came in.

* Blanking out time in his diary for thinking.

The change has had a huge impact. "Physically, I have more time to look after myself. I relax and I can see myself not being as stressed."

What's more, his relationship with his son has improved now that the pair spend more time together.

MacDonald believes his workaholism came from a compulsion to be successful.

"In my mind, I thought you get there through hard work."

Despite working all hours under the sun, MacDonald realises now that he wasn't as effective as he could have been.

"I did really good work and was recognised for it. But when I look back at it now with perspective I probably could have done a better job if I let some stuff go."

He cites the example of a marketing strategy document he wrote while attempting to deal with customer issues that should have been delegated to someone else.

The document was good, but MacDonald knows it could have been better.

"It's about getting from good to great," he says.

"It's about being at work, but not doing great work. You don't give yourself time to think."

In January and February of this year the business had a crisis to deal with and MacDonald found himself working 70-80 hour weeks again.

"Looking from the outside it would have appeared like a relapse. But it wasn't. I was cognisant of the fact that the work was time critical and it had to be done."

Even so, MacDonald's boss encouraged him to take a week off in the middle of the crisis to go on holiday with his son. He turned his mobile phone off during that time.

As an employer, McLean endeavours to promote balance in the work environment.

"At RWR, we have mental health days. This is one day per quarter that you can take off for any reason," she says. Employees also get their birthdays off.

McLean only employs people who have a life and interests outside of work.

"As a leader I also understand that my team's world away from work is always going to come first. When you can show compassion and acknowledge this you engage a more loyal, honest and productive team."

Staff members are encouraged to use all annual leave in the calendar year and to take time out to get fit.

"In my experience healthy, fit people tend to feel better about themselves and have more energy at work."

Finally, there is a difference between hard work and workaholism. The latter is a compulsive behaviour and not everyone who puts in long hours has compulsive tendencies.

As one blogger said: "(Hard workers) sit at their desks and think about skiing. The workaholic is on the ski slopes thinking about work."

Compulsion

* Workaholism is an addictive behaviour

* It often makes workers less efficient

* Physical symptoms such as high blood pressure can result

* Workaholism kills up to 1000 people a year in Japan

* Sufferers must identify the problem if they are to recover

- NZ Herald

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