Hard Worker vs. Workaholic: How to Recognize the Difference

Photo of a cup of coffee next to a laptop.
It's been suggested that here in the United States, we put in longer work hours on average than employees in almost every other developed country in the world. But do our long hours actually mean we accomplish more? And can too many working hours per week actually cause more harm than benefit to our health, our quality of life, and even the success of our companies?

Workaholism vs. Healthy Productivity

What's the difference between a workaholic and a hard worker? Here are a few key signs that distinguish one from another.

  1. A hard worker shows up on time, every single day…except when he can't. He stays home when weather conditions are dangerous, when he's sick, and when more important life priorities intervene. The workaholic comes in every day no matter what. Ignoring contagious illness and pressing obligations can hurt others instead of helping them, turning a selfless contribution into a selfish drain. The lesson: Don't be the clueless jerk who makes everyone in the office sick or misses his child's performance in the third grade play. 

  2. The hard worker plays just as hard as she works. When she's off the clock, she invests her full attention in her trombone lesson, meaningful conversation, or board game, and she moves work to the background of her thoughts. Workaholics view all non-work activities as distractions or wasted time. The lesson: Don't let years of your life slip past unnoticed and unexamined. Be fully present wherever the day takes you. 

  3. The hard worker puts her phone away when she's at the table with friends or family and she takes vacations at least once a year. The workaholic doesn't take vacations and can't disconnect from her phone, even for the duration of a meal. The lesson: If you can't physically separate yourself from the rooms and objects that represent work, you're in trouble. It's time to cultivate a little more independence. 
  4. Finally, a hard worker is healthy most of the time, and she has a strong personality and a balanced life full of interests and social connections. The workaholic has a life tapestry that's pale and threadbare by comparison. He doesn't maintain close social ties, he has few interests outside of work, and he suffers from frequent health problems. He isn't happy. And in the long run, his dependence and his poorly managed lifestyle are likely to make him a negative influence and a liability to the company, rather than its savior. The lesson: If you truly respect your employer and believe in the value of your work, take care of yourself first. The healthier you are (physically and mentally) the better you'll be able to serve and support the enterprise that you love. 

Think You Might Be a Workaholic? Reach Out For Perspective

If you still aren't sure where you fall on the spectrum between hard worker and workaholic, try these two moves: First, identify a few role models. Make sure these are people you actually know (not celebrities). Watch your role models closely. If they can cultivate rich lives outside of the office, then you can too. But actually seeing someone do this can make you feel safer about the prospect of stepping away from work.

Second, visit LiveCareer and take a Career satisfaction test. Career satisfaction and career interest tests can teach you a little more about the realities of your industry, and can offer real information about what it takes to succeed. Most of the time, success comes from skill acquisition, social connections, and flexibility-- not relentlessness, extreme behavior, or unrequited sacrifices.

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