More work hours don’t mean higher production rates. In fact, long hours at the office can turn into workaholism, which devastates productivity. Too often, however, managers see overworked or burnt-out employees as unmotivated. Their typical response is to increase recognition, pass out gift cards or schedule a company event to boost morale. But these remedies are like treating cancer with an aspirin. The fact is, many unmotivated employees are simply overworked.

By preventing and treating workaholism, HR leaders and training professionals can create mental sustainability in an atmosphere where employees have healthy work-life balance. Here are some ways to help your team avoid and recover from workaholism and burnout.

Make It Easier to Take Time Off

Nothing is more effective for treating workaholism than ensuring that everyone takes time off. Remind employees of the importance of taking a vacation to recharge, and practice what you preach: Managers and executives need time off, too.

Today’s workers need flexibility to help maintain a healthy work-life balance. Companies are responding with new vacation plans that transform the standard two-week model. For example, the Seattle-based SEO company Moz has helped raise engagement and productivity with a flexible “paid paid vacation” model. Each year, employees receive the standard 21 days of paid time off, but each also receives $3,000 to spend on airfare, lodging, meals and related expenses. The “paid paid” model improves flexibility, because employees no longer have to save up to pay for travel costs or schedule their vacations around low-priced airfare.

Other companies, such as Spotify, have flexible time-off models that enable employees trade traditional holidays (e.g., the Fourth of July) for other days of the year. By promoting and facilitating time off, organizations save employees from the risks of slipping into burnout and workaholism.

Test Your Team’s Level of Burnout

Diagnostic tools help you head off problems with work addiction, stress and burnout before they become unmanageable. Many scales are easy to administer by asking team members a brief series of questions that identify people who are at high risk of workaholism. Use the scale to identify problems with individual team members or to gauge your team’s attitude toward work. Using it at business retreats can jump-start conversations about work-life balance. You can even incorporate it into daily meetings to take the team’s temperature on a current project.

Identify the Causes of Workaholism

While workaholism is a complex issue, most cases originate from common causes. There are four contributors to overwork: what motivates us, how we think, how we feel and how we behave. Let’s explore each one and how to address it.


Most workaholics don’t enjoy work. That is, they aren’t motivated by the love of what they do. Instead, they feel internal pressure to perform because of their own expectations. Sometimes, they suffer from perfectionism, but a workaholic’s internal motivation can originate from an external source — often an organizational one. Heavy workloads, pushy managers and job insecurity are negative motivators that can cause your team to work too many hours.


We’ve all experienced times when we can’t leave our work at the office. We obsess over a detail, fret over hitting a deadline or run through contingency plans. It’s exhausting! Workaholics find it almost impossible to mentally disengage from work. To help, promote a team policy of ending the day with a 10-minute downtime session — a “no-work zone” where employees are free to talk informally, meditate or nap. End-of-day downtimes help employees mentally switch from work thinking to home thinking. Another solution is to try referring employees to cognitive behavioral therapy to help them correct common thinking mistakes.


Workaholics can feel high levels of guilt and anxiety when they’re not working, but your company’s culture can help. Eliminate unrealistic expectations and workloads. Replace the “fear of failure” with the idea that failure is a part of growth. Train managers in — and promote managers who have — emotional intelligence. Push back against impossible deadlines, and stop recognizing employees who sacrifice everything for the company. Instead, recognize personal accomplishments like graduations, marriages or vacations.


Workaholics do more than expected. They work longer hours, write longer emails and work more weekends. That’s why controlling behavior through mandatory time off is so effective. Also try 15-minute breaks every hour; studies show that this work cadence makes workers more productive. Offer gym memberships so employees can exercise or do yoga to manage stress. Sponsor a “Workaholics Anonymous” group. Help team members learn to cut down on smartphone use, both for work and in their personal lives.

Workaholism is really about our attitude toward work, not the number of hours we put in. Workaholics don’t love work; they get through it. For them, success doesn’t lie in winning but in not failing. And, their internal motivations are sensitive to organizational demands. As their guilt and stress grow, so do their expectations of what they’re able to do.

Paradoxically, workaholics’ biggest weakness is their success. Once they’ve gone above and beyond, they’ve raised the bar for future work, both for themselves and for others. In their efforts to not disappoint, they push even harder. It’s a spiral that’s difficult to escape, but you can disrupt the cycle by managing your expectations and your team’s.