Using Work to Deal with Stress—And How to Stop - Verily

A hard work ethic is certainly a valuable, admirable, and important characteristic. But like most good things, there is a tipping point at which hard work can become somewhat of a problem. The popularized idea that American culture “glorifies busyness” is only part of this issue; it is simply the environment that enables us to normalize our situation when our work habits become problematic.

Because our culture ubiquitously claims hard work as a good thing (and it often is), we praise it and therefore reinforce it. Thus, we fail to recognize when work has become a coping mechanism—when it gets in the way of relationships, is prioritized over our physical and mental health, and violates our personal boundaries.

Work as a coping mechanism

Coping mechanisms can be clearly unhealthy or unhelpful behaviors, like excessive drinking, gambling, using drugs, or reckless and unsafe sexual behaviors. Others may appear more neutral, like watching TV, socializing, eating, or using social media. But others can be harder to identify because they are disguised as beneficial behaviors. Things like exercising, taking care of kids, and pouring oneself into work, which are ordinarily healthy and helpful, can become coping mechanisms. But the line between healthy behavior and coping mechanism isn’t always clear and can be crossed even unbeknownst to oneself.

An activity, habit, or behavior is referred to as a “coping mechanism” when that behavior is used as a way to deal with stress or anxiety. “Dealing” with the stress usually means the behavior is done excessively or compulsively to cope with, avoid, or distract oneself from the stress of a problem.

Overworking when a specific stressful event occurs or when life becomes generally stressful or anxiety-provoking is not obviously a clinical problem. Unlike excessive drinking or other clearly harmful habits, working a lot is not necessarily something that will cause family or friends to raise a red flag. Conversely, diving into work can be rewarding in terms of compensation, accolades, promotions, or personal satisfaction, so others may even encourage us in our pursuits, seeing it as a purely good thing.

However, there is a subtle line that may be crossed. 

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