When a loved one become a workaholic, it can be painful to watch them obsess and stress over deadlines. And during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many of us have loved ones who are physically present, but mentally checked out because of their jobs.
Katheryn Perez, a marriage and family therapist in Burbank, California, says she has seen the quality time that people enjoyed pre-pandemic being taken away by working from home or increased childcare responsibilities, and how that takes a toll on families.
“Kids are starting to feel that resentment or [are] really struggling with having mum or dad be fully present,” she says. “Partners complain about their inability to disconnect from work.”
Watching a loved one’s mental health deteriorate because of their job, she says, can make people feel “sad and confused and angry about ‘What can I do to help this person?’ Or ‘What can I do so they don’t have to keep working excessively?’”
But before you start throwing accusations and ultimatums at the workaholic in your life, take these helpful actions first. They’ll ensure your concerns have a better chance of being heard, and you can learn to accept what is outside of your control or ability to manage.
DO self-reflect on where their workaholism could be coming from and what is your responsibility.
Perez says it’s important to try to understand what motivates your loved one’s tendency to overwork. “Are they expected to work long hours? Do they struggle with delegating duties? Does being busy give them a sense of security or make them feel good?” she says. “The whole purpose of that is to understand that whatever is encouraging them to work that much has nothing to do with you.”
If you find yourself resentful or angry at your workaholic, take a step back and reflect on where these feelings are coming from. For partners, “It can be helpful to disentangle what parts hit pain points of your own versus what parts are diminishing the partnership and what parts are hurting your partner,” says Deborah Kim, a California-based psychotherapist.
Kim says this sort of self-reflection should include identifying what feelings and associations may be coming up. Maybe you feel forgotten or mildly neglected, or more burdened with household or childcare duties, she suggests.
For couples, one question to think about is, “Has the partner always been a workaholic but you have changed in your fondness of this fact over time, and if so, is this still bearable?” Kim suggests. “Or is this familiar in any way to a childhood experience of parents or guardians overworking? Could that be why you didn’t protest it for awhile?”
“I always like to think of partnerships as three parts: you, your partner and the relationship as its own entity,” Kim says. “The clearer you are on owning what parts go where, the easier it is to find clarity on what to work on in any of the three parts.“
Perez says it’s common for loved ones to self-blame and think their overworked family member doesn’t want to spend time with them, or wonder if they’re the ones who need to be working harder. “It’s really important to separate what’s part of them and what is part of you,” she says.
DO have a conversation, but DON’T accuse them.
If your loved one’s work habits bother you, do have a conversation. Staying silent can cause long-term damage. “The partner who is not the workaholic just goes off and finds other things to do, and so then the relationship deteriorates completely because they never addressed their need for this workaholism to be worked on,” warns Angela Karachristos, a career coach.
When you do have a conversation, don’t jump to making accusations like “Work is more important than me” or “You are never there for me,” Karachristos says, because it puts your workaholic on the defensive and makes them less open to listening to what you are saying.
Instead, Kim suggests starting the conversation by “being descriptive in a factual and neutral tone” about how much your loved one has been working, what impact that has had on your household duties, and the shift in the quality of the physical, emotional and social connection you two share. Then you can explain how that loss has made you feel and “ask for what you need that feels feasible.”
DO try scheduling quality time.
Instead of guessing or wondering when your loved one is free, Karachristos suggests scheduling leisure time with them to create better boundaries between their work and your relationship.
“You put these tangible boundaries on their time and say, ’If you are going to work so much, let’s set aside these hours for dinner,′ or dinner without devices, or a movie, whatever that might be,” she suggests.
Perez notes that scheduling quality time also holds the person accountable; they’ll know that they need to set a healthy boundary for that time because it’s been scheduled. “People that are workaholics also tend to keep up with their schedules because that’s truly how they live their world,” she adds.
DO accept the limitations of what you can address.
Once you’ve said your piece, accept that there is only so much you can do.
“They have to want to also work on it; you cannot change their mind,” Karachristos says, noting that a workaholic may be more likely to get on board with changing behaviours when you make it about your shared relationship getting healthier rather than about their job or work style.
Know that this may be more than a one-off conversation. To keep your door open, you could explain to them that you want them to see you as a safe space with words like “Our relationship is important, so I want to make sure that you to have a space where you can decompress and relax about it,” Karachristos suggests.
Perez says it can also be helpful to adjust your expectations for what you want from this person.
“We might want them to work only a couple of hours, or only work an eight-hour shift ... but the reality of it is, if your family member or loved one or partner is struggling with setting boundaries around work, that won’t change fairly quickly,” she says.
Notice when their busiest work seasons are, so you know when not to expect them to be available, or to be able to meet your needs, Perez suggests.
DO take time to take care of yourself and seek outside help.
Doing things for yourself during this time can also reduce feelings of resentment toward your overworked loved one and can just help you feel good, Perez says, suggesting quality time with friends as an example.
Know that it’s not all on you to work this out. There’s also the option of outside advice.
“If you feel you are getting nowhere, seek couples counseling,” Kim suggested for people with overworked partners. “A skilled therapist works on behalf of the couple, not either individual, and will call out the problems in the dynamic.”