Why Women Work Until They are in Pain (and How to Stop)

It was 3 a.m. and I was in the hall jumping around. I really needed to stayed awake. And the thousand cups of coffee I had already consumed were doing nothing except making me have to pee all the time.

We were in the middle of our annual conversion of data. We had to restructure all the data, that every single Program Manager used to manage their large government contracts, to our new organizational structure. Stopping wasn’t an option.

The reward punishment for the whole endeavor was that I would take a few hours to nap and then board a plane for vacation. I spent the first day of my vacation asleep in the hotel room.

Being a recovering workaholic I know a thing or two about working until you are in pain. I’ve finally comes to terms with how dangerous this was for me, but this but that wasn’t my first or last experiencing working way to much.

Why Women Work Until They Are In Pain

There are so many women who give, give, give until they fall down from exhaustion, regardless of whether you are pulling all-nighters. You may remember Huffington Post editor-in-chier Arianna Huffington who collapsed with exhaustion in 2007. I guarantee she’s not the only woman who has experienced the physical symptoms of over work. It happens to so many women.

Would you earn more chocolate than you could eat?

Researchers have studied this phenomenon and what they found was that we tend to prioritize working and earning beyond our needs before leisure. In one study participants were given a piece of chocolate for listening to an ear-piercing sound.

They could listen to the noise as often as they liked during a five minute period. But…here’s the catch…they had to give back any chocolate that they couldn’t eat in the five minutes following the experiment.

The participants were divided into groups of high-earners and low-earners. This didn’t have anything to do with salary. It was how many times they had to listen to the ear-piercing noise to earn one piece of chocolate. High earners earned chocolate when they listened to the noise fewer times; while the low earners had to listen to the noise more often to earn their chocolate.

What happened?

The high earners earned on average nearly three times more chocolate than they could consume within the next five minute period. The high earners were choosing to listen to this terrible noise. They voluntarily subjected themselves to pain, even though they knew they couldn’t eat all the chocolate.

The social scientists concluded that the desire to earn is not based on want or need, but on how much pain we can withstand.

Think about that for a moment. Our desire to earn is based on how much pain we can withstand. I would extend this to say it isn’t only about earning money, but also the praises of our boss. I know plenty of women (myself included when I was in the corporate world) who made work their worth.

How to Stop Over-Working (or Over-Giving)

1. Recognize over working isn’t helping

Over work and stress have been proven to lead to restless nights, depression, anxiety, diabetes and heart disease. If you are unable to take care of yourself, you will be useless at the office or for your family. You may feel like there is some external pressure to get all of these things done, but often, when you get to the heart of it it’s a fear of not being enough that keeps us going long after we should have stopped.

2. Focus on what you have completed

Most of time over workers look at their to-do list and focus on how long it is. It seems impossible to do everything they need to or want to do. Instead, focus on what you were able to get done each day. Be grateful for everything you were able to accomplish.

3. Delegate and ask for help

As an over achiever it’s easy to get sucked into the trap of thinking that you are the only one who can accomplish a particular task or project. But is that really true? Most of the time there is something you can do to delegate or ask for help. Even if you think it will take you longer to teach someone else, you will reap the rewards the next time you have to do that project.

4. Let Go, let go, and then let go some more

For all my perfectionists out there, you must learn to let go. What is it on the list that doesn’t really need to get done? What can you scale back? Instead of throwing your child an elaborate party making you can opt for pizza at the pool instead. It might not be your first choice but most of the time you are not drastically changing the outcome by scaling back.

5. Figure out what you love

Overworking can be a distraction from your real life. You end up with little time to do anything else, except work. As a result many women don’t even know what they would do with themselves if they weren’t working. So make a list of everything you’ve wanted to do. Read that book. Go to that show. Take a nap. It can be very simple but you just need to know how you will be spending your time so you can consciously choose a more enjoyable activity instead of working.

6. Set up Accountability

Don’t just pray that your will power will keep you from over-working, enlist a friend or partner to hold you accountable. When I wanted to cut back my hours I asked my husband to call me at 6 (which felt much more reasonable than 5) to help me get out of the office. He’d stay on the phone bugging me to leave until I actually got up out of my chair and was headed to the car.

As women we are natural givers. And most women are motivated by results. We see our hard work pay off and we think we if only we can do more, then we will feel even better about ourselves. It just doesn’t work this way unfortunately. We end up really disconnected from ourselves and others. Do yourself a favor and choose one of these tips to work on this week. Let us know how it goes in the comments below.



Amanda Sowadski is a Life & Leadership Coach for Ambitious Women and the Founder of the Institute for Feminine Leadership. She helps women live and lead from the heart by tapping into their feminine energy. After nearly 15 years in corporate America, achieving a prestigious position, a great title, and a lucrative paycheck she realized there was so much more to life than work. After reconnecting with her soul she created a whole new model of feminine leadership where women can be free to be themselves and achieve the success they desire. When she's not sharing her insights she's laughing, building forts, and skipping with her daughter and husband in Minneapolis, MN.

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