How to use a vacation to conquer work addiction

beach view

Workaholism is as much an addiction as those to drugs, tobacco or alcohol. Those who suffer from it crave the constant ‘highs’ they get from throwing themselves into work’s deadlines, problems and constant hustle and bustle. Even those near-impossible targets and deadlines can provide an adrenaline rush. Staring into the abyss of an empty order-book or hurling yourself headlong into the race to chalk up still more quarterly profits has something about it akin to extreme sports like bungee-jumping or free-fall parachuting.

To many people, work seems so much more exciting than the rest of their life. Once hooked on the ceaseless crises and challenges, they can’t let go.

Going ‘cold turkey’

Nearly all addicts face withdrawal symptoms when they try to break free and workaholism is no exception. Recovering addicts are likely to feel unfocused, aimless, tense and irritable. They suffer anxiety (“I ought to be doing something“) and fear (“What’s going on that I don’t know about? Who’s plotting to mess me about some way?”). If they’re in the office, the temptation to fall ‘off the wagon’ and get back into their old ways can be overwhelming.

That’s why a vacation is a good time to cope with post-workaholic stress disorder (PWSD). Aside from the initial period of cold turkey, the state of nervousness that hangs around is easier to deal with if you aren’t in a place where you can start checking up again. That’s why some high-end resorts now offer to lock away guests’ computers, CrackBerry’s, cellphones and PDAs so it’s almost impossible to slip back into staying in 24-hour contact “just in case.”

Designing a vacation to deal with PWSD

Taking the kind of vacation you’ve always taken — assuming you’re not such a hopeless workaholic that you can’t remember what that’s like — won’t do for this purpose. A PWSD cure needs careful planning in advance and some tough decisions to take your medicine and stick with it long enough to see results. You may need to enlist the help of your nearest and dearest along the way. They’ll probably be willing to assist since, in my experience, they are usually the ones whom you have made to suffer worst during your years as a workaholic.

Here are the steps you will need:

  • Take a long enough vacation to allow the cure to work. Three weeks is ideal, two weeks is reasonable, 10 days is the minimum useful period.
  • Go right away — a long way away — so you can’t be called back in anything but the most dire emergency.
  • Contract with someone else (that nearest and dearest person would be ideal) to take charge of all means of contact with your office and deny you access. Tell them also to keep you away from telephones, Internet cafés, and any other ways of getting in touch with your place of work.
  • Before you leave, tell everyone at work that you are going to a place so remote that contact will be impossible. Give an emergency contact number to only one person and threaten to erase all their hard drives and backups when you return if they give it to anyone else.
  • During your vacation impose a total media blackout. No news, no papers, nothing.
  • Select a vacation that includes plenty of activities. It’s best if these are either compulsory or you have paid for them in advance, so you’ll be unwilling to waste your money by not taking part. A beach holiday should be avoided at all costs. The abrupt transition between the continual, hectic activity at work and hours with nothing particular to do will be too much. I used to take group birding tours. You had to go along, because everyone expected it (and you rarely stayed two consecutive nights anywhere, so they couldn’t leave you behind) and you were out looking for birds from before dawn until the sun went down, every day.
  • Act like a recovering alcoholic, for whom a single drink will start it all over again. Don’t check in with your workplace even once. That will send you right back to being addicted. The rule is not a single call, e-mail, or internet connection. Not one.

Just in case you think this all sounds too extreme and “one little drink — I mean phone call — can’t hurt,” Air New Zealand found that staff who took a total-break vacation showed an 82% improvement in performance on their return. What else can do that?

Besides, you owe it to yourself to break your addiction, whether it’s strong or mild. Workaholism lowers energy and resilience, undermines your health, wrecks relationships, inflicts needless pain on others and destroys your judgment. The effects can be on a par with drink and drugs. It’s high time organizations took it as seriously and made it either an offense meriting discipline or a condition for which treatment is compulsory.

Make this year’s vacation the one where you finally free yourself to live a normal, healthy life.

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