What is workaholism?

In Japan, it’s called karoshi – ‘death by overwork’ – and it’s estimated to cause 1 000 deaths per year, nearly 5% of that country’s stroke and heart attack deaths in employees under age 60. In the Netherlands, it’s resulted in a new condition known as ‘leisure illness’, estimated to affect 3% of its entire population, according to one study. Workers actually get physically sick on weekends and vacations as they stop working and try, in vain, to relax. Workaholism is an addiction, and it’s not the same as working hard or putting in long hours. Workaholism, or compulsive working, is an addiction that is based on a powerlessness to reduce working hours to reasonable levels. A kind of adrenaline ‘high’ is experienced during working (even though some of this is experienced as high stress), and this sets up a pattern of behavioural reinforcement just like any chemical addiction. Discomforts in life and work, or feelings of emptiness, cause the sufferer to seek relief from those discomforts. The person uses work accomplishment as a way of feeling good about themselves. However, as the workaholic attends increasingly to getting things done at work, their personal life begins to suffer from lack of attention. As their personal life suffers, it causes more discomfort for the workaholic, so the workaholic works even harder at getting more things done at work, causing their personal lives to suffer even more – and the vicious cycle, or compulsive work syndrome, goes on and on. Unlike drug addiction, society often reinforces and rewards work addiction. Workaholism is fast becoming a socially acceptable modern-day addiction. Balancing of personal and professional life is one of the major dilemmas being faced by today’s professionals. The intense levels of competition in the corporate sector are taking a heavy toll on family life. A recent study by Oxford Health Plans showed that:

  • 34% of respondents said their jobs were so pressing that they had no downtime at work
  • 32% said they eat lunch at their desks
  • 32% don’t leave the building during the workday
  • 14% felt management promotes only people who usually work late

One of the most difficult problems in recovering from workaholism is that the workaholic’s hard work is often viewed by their superiors (supervisors and upper management) as superior performance, so they are rewarded for their hard work. Fortunately, many people in organisations are learning to recognise the signs of workaholism and to realise that, ultimately, the addiction hurts the person’s performance.

Societal consequences of workaholism

As a workaholic, a person is encouraged by his task or project-based accomplishments and moves quickly to the next task. This leads to a state of burnout. There is no breathing space in between. Workaholism impels us to labour for longer hours, leaving us with no quality time to be physically and emotionally available to our loved ones. What happens in the process is that intimacy soon dies, and it takes us away from our families. Various studies have suggested that workaholism, like alcoholism and other addictions, takes a severe toll on marriages. Women married to workaholics tend to feel estranged from their husbands and have less warm feeling towards them. Eventually, it leads to apathy and indifference between husband and wife. Children can also feel lonely and neglected. As the personal life begins to suffer more, it becomes the major bone of contention and causes more discomfort; so the workaholic works even harder, causing their personal life to suffer even more.

Workaholism is often not effective

Research suggests that overall, workaholics tend to be less effective than other workers because it’s difficult for them to be team players, they have trouble delegating or entrusting co-workers, or they take on so much that they aren’t as organised as others. Some research indicates four distinct workaholic ‘working styles’:

  • The bulimic workaholic feels the job must be done perfectly or not at all. Bulimic workaholics often can’t get started on projects, and then scramble to complete it by the deadline, often frantically working to the point of exhaustion – with sloppy results.
  • The relentless workaholic is the adrenaline junkie who often takes on more work than can possibly be done. In an attempt to juggle too many balls, they often work too fast or are too busy for careful, thorough results.
  • The attention-deficit workaholic often starts with fury but fails to finish projects – often because they lose interest in favour of another project. They often savour the ‘brainstorming’ aspects but are easily bored with the necessary details or follow-through.
  • The savouring workaholic is slow, methodical and overly scrupulous. They often have trouble letting go of projects and don’t work well with others. These are often consummate perfectionists, frequently missing deadlines because ‘it’s not perfect’.

Warning signs that your work is out of balance

  • when home becomes another office
  • when you are overly committed to your work
  • when you take your laptop even on family vacations
  • when you attend to official phone calls on holiday
  • when work begins to haunt you in your sleep
  • when you are mentally and physically tired, restless or start feeling fatigued
  • when you are short on breath and experience continuous headache or a state of insomnia
  • when you start feeling irritated at small things
  • when you begin to feel antagonistic towards your children or spouse for no reasons
  • when you feel greatly stressed and it starts affecting your marital and sex life

Work stress versus workaholism

The difference between drug dependence and drug abuse is that drug abuse tends to be situational, and when the situation passes the person is able to resume control. A man’s wife leaves him and he hits the bottle for a few months while dealing with his grief and trying to rekindle a misspent youth. Then he gets a warning at work, or has a car accident, or meets a new woman or begins playing over-40s soccer with the lads, and his drinking reduces to controlled proportions. The drug-dependent individual is unable to reduce his use, or he can reduce temporarily but cannot maintain this control. Workaholism is temporarily overworking as what drug dependence is to drug abuse. Many of us go through phases where we find that we are working in an out-of-control manner and that our lives are suffering as a result. We may be emotionally distant from our partners, becoming couch potatoes, and developing stress-related conditions. Often it takes a bit of a wake-up call for us to begin to look for balance again, and sometimes we require some level of professional help to confront particular problems in our lives and get us back on track. Others of us find that although we attempt to ‘slow down’, we just cannot maintain this, and no matter what we try that the damages in areas of our lives keep piling up.

How do I get help for myself or my loved one?

The first step in getting help is finding out whether you have a problem. A trained clinical psychologist can effectively perform a professional assessment, which will identify whether you have any problem areas, and will recommend the treatment most appropriate for you if necessary.

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