My stomach tensed as I glanced at the digital clock above the stove. Dinner was in 15 minutes, and I had yet to bake the apple pie I was supposed to serve my partner’s family for dessert. It was a Friday night in August, and we'd been quarantining with his parents for the past two months. A freelance assignment had taken longer than expected, upending my pie-making plans. I stared at the bowl of apples I’d spent more than an hour peeling, coring, and slicing, and swallowed a sob, straight-up exhausted.
I’d exhausted myself, though. Since lockdown began, I’d bookended busy workweeks with equally busy weekends spent hiking, strength training, baking, and if I was feeling especially productive, tapping away at a freelance assignment or my memoir manuscript. The pandemic had turned me into a workaholic.
Before the pandemic, I considered myself a recovered workaholic who’d learned to prioritize my rest as much as my work (thanks, therapy!). Other than hitting the gym, I’d spend most of my weekends relaxing: lounging, reading, treating myself to a craft cocktail at a bar. But when my county declared a shelter-in-place in mid-March, I reverted to my old tendencies, hard.
Those who’ve switched to remote work have also found themselves clocking in longer workdays as their personal and professional lives bleed into one another. Rahul Mohanachandran, who works full time as a senior manager at a software company in the U.K., now devotes the two hours he used to spend commuting, as well as weekends, on his business venture, an online platform that allows users to compare furniture across vendors. “I am spending close to five hours every day on the business, which is very close to a full-time job,” the 33-year-old tells me.
The thing is, I was working from home years before the pandemic, making me wonder whether something else is underlying my reawakened workaholism, beyond the fuzzy boundaries of remote work. Early on in the pandemic, I loaded up on freelance assignments in order to brace myself for a tenuous economy. Now, several months in, I've realized that I'll probably be okay, but even with the privilege of financial stability, I just can't seem to snap out of work mode. I asked Petros Levounis, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, to help me understand why.
For starters, the pandemic has vastly limited the activities available to us, leaving work as one of the only options, Levounis tells me. On a biological and psychological level, “we need excitement in the mesolimbic system,” a.k.a. our brain’s reward pathway. A spike in the neurotransmitter dopamine can activate this pathway, but we can’t engage in many of the activities — social events, restaurant dining, and travel, to name a few — that increase dopamine levels. Instead, many of us turn to work for that dopamine hit. Indeed, at a time when I can’t hug my friends, I’ll take the rush of accomplishment that comes from crossing items off my to-do list.
Also, most of us like to follow a routine — in the mornings before the pandemic hit, that might’ve included commuting to the office, grabbing coffee, and chatting with colleagues — which the pandemic has largely disrupted for those of us now working from home, Levounis explains. (Pre-pandemic, I’d still commute a few days a week into an office I rented and head to my gym in the evening, where my partner would pick me up after he got off work.) Overworking can reduce the anxiety this loss of routine can cause, serving as “a defense mechanism against this disorderly world that we now live in, devoid of routine and devoid of structure.”
Piling on work can be a way of imposing structure in the absence of our usual routines, Levounis says. For me, that looks like marking time by the beginning and end of a story draft, a workout, a hike.
And perhaps conveniently, staying busy leaves little room for us to feel anything, including the uncomfortable emotions that can surface during a pandemic, Levounis says. Years of therapy have taught me to sit with rejection, insecurity, and other painful emotions, rather than distract myself from them with work. But sitting with the grief, existential dread, and uncertainty of this pandemic seems like an altogether different beast, which is probably why I’ve literally toiled away to avoid it.
The pandemic’s convergence with the election, continued exposure of systemic racism, and the ongoing climate crisis probably isn’t helping matters. Our world feels extremely unpredictable, and working nonstop can be way of reining in that sense of unpredictability and the anxiety it brings, Levounis explains. “Many of us feel that a few weeks from today, there may be a very different world,” he says of the upcoming election. Regardless of which candidate we support, “it’s going to be a major change, and that is anxiety-provoking, no matter what.”
As someone who’s defaulted to workaholism in the wake of a breakup or whenever life felt chaotic, I have a theory that my constant need to be productive gives me a sense of control at a moment when the ground feels like it’s crumbling beneath me. “That might be particularly true for people who have more of an obsessive personality type”—those attracted to perfection, structure, and organization, Levounis says when I float my theory past him, describing me to a T.
Although it might alleviate your anxiety in the short term, burrowing yourself in work isn’t sustainable long term. Eventually, you might start ignoring your basic physical needs, including adequate food and sleep, interpersonal relationships, and sex, Levounis says. “It takes a physical toll on you, as well as an emotional one.”
You also risk burnout, which is basically when your body gives up without your conscious mind realizing it. “I have experienced burnout during the lockdown because of my schedule and have to take a couple of weekends off to get back to normal,” says Mohanachandran, who tells me he works around 13 hours a day.
To cope with workaholism, Levounis suggests seeking therapy, if you can. If therapy isn’t an option right now, “try to find some other ways to help your pleasure and reward pathways,” instead of working non-stop, like connecting with others online. Try not to be so quick to write off virtual happy hours or dance parties. Something is much better than nothing.
One of my most cherished lessons from therapy is that my energy is finite and worth protecting. After my conversation with Levounis, I’ve realized that the energy I’ve channeled toward fleeing my feelings would probably be better spent learning to sit with them, and devising creative ways to find pleasure in the ways available to me.