Work Separation Anxiety: More than a Sense of Responsibility

Do you stress out about work even when you’re off the clock?

Most of us consider ourselves pretty lucky if we are able to get paid to do a job we enjoy. Whether you’re a CEO, a mechanic, a teacher, or a healer, job satisfaction is totally going to influence your overall happiness and life satisfaction. It will greatly influence your family’s happiness, as well.

The world of work is where the majority of humans spend the majority of their waking hours. We joke about “work wives” or “work husbands,” but the relationships we forge with the people with whom we work can be pretty important to how we feel when we get up every morning and how we’re feeling when we come home at the end of the day.

Maybe we like job stress more than we know?

According to a recent study conducted by TSheets, Americans have a difficult time finding—or allocating—the time to take advantage of the paid time off that they are due. The reasons that we’re not taking off the time we deserve varied pretty broadly—from having workloads that are too heavy (18%), to “forgetting” to take the leave (8%), to bowing to a culture they felt did not encourage taking vacations (3%), among several others. Unfortunately, even though we are making a decision to forego a psychological and physical break from our job, we still are feeling dangerous levels of stress from the decision. Physical health is put at risk when we work non-stop without taking days off for re-booting our bodies. Stress causes us to have more accidents at home and on the job, too.

One other finding from the study highlights a cultural difference between the U.S. and a lot of other countries that know better how to utilize the gift of time away from work. The majority of U.S. workers surveyed stated that they would choose a pay raise over additional paid leave. It’s clear that we are willing to put up with the job-induced stress that most of us complain about if we feel the money is right. But for some people, even if they got the pay raise AND the additional vacation time, it wouldn’t make a difference in their willingness to actually take time off from the job. These are the people who suffer from a special form of separation anxiety—Work Separation Anxiety.

What exactly is Work Separation Anxiety?

Last month, an old friend reached out and shared her fear that her husband was suffering from symptoms of a disorder that sounds a lot like a basic separation anxiety disorder, but his was specific to the turmoil and angst he experienced when he left the job. She said it wasn’t so much the case that he was a workaholic, she just felt that he let work worries and concerns take too much of his energy when he should have been focused on non-work pursuits. Not only did her husband struggle with committing to take vacation days, he also had trouble taking time away for “life or death” absences such as the funerals of loved ones or his own hospital stay. In a nutshell, “Work Separation Anxiety” or “Job Separation Anxiety” seems to be a disorder that affects individuals who feel the need to ensure that everything happens just as it should on the job—even when it’s not necessarily their responsibility or when they are not even literally “on” the job.

Through some research, I found out that anxiety about missing work is more common than we might like to believe. Regardless of age or gender, we tend to take a healthy slice of our social and emotional identity from our vocational choice. We grow up and “become” our job title. Ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, and expect to hear career choices, not qualities such as kind, loyal, or honest. We value the role we play as a cog in the occupational machine rather than how we actually choose to play that role. My friend shared that when she needed her husband to take time off work to attend to the business of life that was not work-related, he would respond with significant agitation that would manifest itself in predictions of disasters that might strike if he weren’t there to prevent them.

Work Separation Anxiety causes people to believe that the entire “work machine” might collapse without them overseeing their singular role—although they may just be a tiny cog in the greater machine. Their ability to enjoy life beyond the cubicle or the corner office is lessened due to the “work-related noise inside their heads” that distracts them from being present with the people in their presence. The sad part of all of this is that most of us will never matter as much to the job as the job and its assorted tasks and responsibilities matter to us. Yet if we identify ourselves with the tasks we complete on the job, it makes sense that we’d harbor a deep-seated fear of who we would be if those tasks went undone in our absence.

What’s the Prognosis for Work Separation Anxiety?

Unfortunately, it seems that the more we worry about something, the more we worry. Learning to turn off worries requires a concentrated effort on the part of the worrier—or, even more effective and rewarded, the ability to replace the negative self-talk that worry generates with positive thoughts and healthier habits. Unfortunately, though, a problem isn’t perceived as “a problem” until the person suffering with it recognizes that it has actually BECOME a problem. That’s why support networks are so important to our well-being. We need others in our lives who can help us see what we don’t see and offer the support that is needed to help us make positive changes in our lives.

If you’re the type of person who cannot enjoy a moment away from the office for fear of what might happen in your absence or what tasks you’re not completing when you’re actually supposed to be focused on leisure, not work, then you may want to take a long, hard look at how your devotion to your job is affecting your devotion to your partner, your family, your friends, or any leisure activities you once used to enjoy. Although it seems to be the American way to work ourselves into varying states of burn-out and early demise, it doesn’t mean that you can’t re-chart your own course and buck the trend of unhealthy, work obsessed folks who are putting their physical and psychological well-being at risk.

Trust your colleagues and co-workers to do the jobs they are trained to do. Take advantage of accrued leave and paid time off. Using your vacation leave benefits can be a lot more pleasurable than being forced to use your sick leave benefits when over worry and overwork manifest themselves into physical illness.

By: Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D.