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Could Your Workaholism Be a Symptom of Imposter Syndrome?

How to recognise it and what to do next

Illustration by Beatrice Simpkiss

Putting in the hard yards and going above and beyond to deliver are common in the creative industries, but when this veers into a compulsion, workaholism could be at play. There are many factors that might cause someone to let work take over their lives to an unhealthy degree. And while external pressures are certainly there, when the pressure is internal, this drive might be the result of imposter syndrome. 

Here, Tanya Livesey, course leader for the new D&AD Imposter Syndrome online course, outlines how to spot workaholism and how to recognise the root causes. Livesey is one of the founders of The Talent Business, a leading global executive search company for creative businesses, and a leadership coach. Here, she tells us why imposter syndrome could be at the root of workaholism for many. 

What is workaholism, how do you define it?
Workaholism is when someone works excessive hours – usually more than would normally be required to get the job done and they do so out of an inner compulsion that has little to do with the enjoyment of the work itself.

What are some signs of workaholism, and what might someone with a tendency towards it do?
Workaholics tend to exhibit the following tell-tale signs:

  • They prioritise work above all else – often at the expense of personal leisure time and time spent with family and friends.  This means frequently working anti-social hours – with long days and often working over weekends and holidays.  They may also find it hard to make connections in the workplace, as they prioritise time spent getting their own work done, rather than socialising or collaborating with colleagues.

  • They tend to feel anxious when they are not working and find it hard to switch off from work and properly unwind.

  • They rarely enjoy their work.  Passion for your work may lead to long hours but this is borne out of intrinsic motivation for work which is pleasurable and absorbing.   By contrast, workaholics often feel compelled to work to assuage feelings of guilt or out of anxiety around a need to prove themselves – so their motivation rarely stems from feelings of pleasure in their work.

What are some of the reasons people become workaholics?
There are several reasons why someone might become a workaholic:

  • They may be highly driven by the value of achievement and compel themselves to over-work out of fear of failure.

  • Perfectionists are often workaholics as they find it hard to accept when something is good enough and often feel compelled to keep pushing their work to unattainably high standards.

  • Sometimes people overwork as a means of masking emotional distress from past events in their lives – so overwork is used as a means of avoiding confronting issues that might be upsetting to them.

  • Workaholism might also be fuelled by the psychological need to feel competent and to be seen as competent at work.

Why might workaholism be a symptom of imposter syndrome?
Workaholism is often a common symptom of Imposter Syndrome – as sufferers believe they are less competent and capable than they really are.  As such, they are driven to overwork in the mistaken belief that they need to put in the extra hours to deliver their work to an acceptable standard or out of fear that they will get found out for not being capable of doing their job if they don’t.  Even when there is evidence of their success and skill in their work, they find it hard to internalise their achievements and therefore start every project with the feeling that they have to prove themselves all over again.

Are there any feelings or behaviours of workaholism that signal that Imposter Syndrome might be behind this for the individual?
When your tendency to overwork is driven by feelings of anxiety, self-doubt or fear of failure – and thoughts such as ‘what if I’m not good enough?’, ‘what if my work’s not good enough?’ or ‘what if I get found out?’ – then these are often clear indicators that Imposter Syndrome might be behind this behaviour.

What are some first steps to take to addressing it? 
Whilst the negative effects of workaholism from Imposter Syndrome are very real, the good news is that there are lots of strategies you can learn to adopt to help you minimise its impact.  Imposter Syndrome is a deeply personal and often very isolating experience - founded on the belief that you’re the odd one out or that you’re not as good as everyone else.  Ironically, it’s a very common experience with 7 in 10 people suffering from it at some point in their lives. So one of the best first steps to dealing with it is to share your experiences with colleagues or peers.  Hearing that they feel the same way can often make us feel better, as we quickly realise we’re not alone.

Want to do more to address Imposter Syndrome? On 10 March, Tanya Livesey is hosting a half day intensive masterclass on overcoming self doubt. More information and registration here. If tou can't make that, you can sign up for the D&AD Imposter Syndrome online course here

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