Workaholism: The 'Respectable' Addiction

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

If work consumes you and destroys your personal life, there could be more going on; you could be a workaholic.

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

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.

And here in the U.S., workaholism remains what it's always been: the so-called "respectable addiction" that's dangerous as any other and could affect millions of Americans -- whether or not they hold jobs.

"Yes, workaholism is an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it's not the same as working hard or putting in long hours," says Bryan Robinson, PhD, one of the nation's leading researchers on the disorder and author of Chained to the Desk and other books on workaholism.

The Difference Between Hard Work and Workaholism

"Hard work put us on the moon and discovered vaccinations and built this country," he tells WebMD. "But hard workers generally have some balance in their lives. They sit at their desks and think about skiing. The workaholic is on the ski slopes thinking about work."

Their obsession with work is all-occupying, which prevents workaholics from maintaining healthy relationships, outside interests, or even take measures to protect their health.

"These are people who may have children, but miss Little League games and school plays when they don't have to, not because they have to be at work but because they feel they need to," says Tuck T. Saul, PhD, a psychotherapist in Columbus, Ohio, who frequently counsels workaholics. "They neglect their health to the point of devastating results and ignore their friends and family. They avoid going on vacation so they don't have to miss work. And even if they do go on vacation, they aren't fully present because their mind is still on work.

"As with any other 'aholism,' there is often a lack of understanding as to how their work addiction affects themselves and others," Tuck tells WebMD. "Often, they only realize their problem when something catastrophic happens to them -- their health completely fails or their marriage or relationships are destroyed."

Addicted to Adrenaline

Such was the case with Cheri, a 52-year-old nurse in California. Several years ago, she realized she was a workaholic and has since attended Workaholics Anonymous (WA) meetings once a week -- which like Alcoholics Anonymous -- has its own 12-step recovery program. Now, she volunteers to help others in the group's Menlo Park headquarters.

"I was wildly successful in my career, a very effective worker and my employers loved me," she tells WebMD. "But outside of work ... well, there was no outside of work. I never thought I had a problem until I tried to get into a close relationship, for something like the fifth time. That was my wake-up call, and it probably helped that my partner was in his own 12-step recovery for another addiction at the time. I took the 20-question quiz at the WA web site and 16 [of them] described me to a T. He was getting better and I realized I had my own addiction -- to adrenaline."

Don't laugh. Workaholics can have a physiologic need for that adrenaline rush, says Robinson, a psychotherapist in Asheville, N.C., and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

"One thing that we do know is that workaholics tend to seek out jobs that allow them to exercise their addiction," he says. "The workplace itself does not create the addiction any more than the supermarket creates food addiction, but it does enable it. Workaholics tend to seek high-stress jobs to keep the adrenaline rush going."

This is true even if they don't work outside the home.

"We're seeing more women workaholics now because women are more visible in the workplace. But it's my belief that even before this trend, workaholics were doing this in the home," says Robinson. "It could be in their parenting to the point where there is nothing else to balance their lives, no hobbies or fun or spirituality, because they spend all their time as the PTA president, running the youth sports league, and being a Scout leader."

Disorders Often Stem From Childhood

Research shows that the seeds of workaholism are often planted in childhood, resulting in low self-esteem that carries into adulthood.

"Many workaholics are the children of alcoholics or come from some other type of dysfunctional family, and work addiction is an attempt to control a situation that is not controllable," he tells WebMD. "Or they tend to be products of what I call 'looking good families' whose parents tend to be perfectionists and expect unreasonable success from their kids. These children grow up thinking that nothing is ever good enough. Some just throw in the towel, but others say, 'I'm going to show I'm the best in everything so [my] parents approve of me.'"

The problem is, perfection is unattainable, whether you're a kid or a successful professional.

"Anyone who carries a mandate for perfection is susceptible to workaholism because it creates a situation where the person never gets to cross the finish line, because it keeps moving farther out," says Saul.

That is why despite logging in mega hours and sacrificing their health and loved ones for their jobs, workaholics are frequently ineffective employees.

Workaholic Styles

"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 organized as others," says Robinson.

In fact, his 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 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 for another project. They often savor the "brainstorming" aspects but get easily bored with the necessary details or follow-through.
  • The savoring 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."

Getting Help

What can be done? Counseling is often recommended for workaholics, and support groups, such as Workaholics Anonymous, are beneficial, say the experts.

"It really comes down to recognizing a need for balance in your life," says Robinson. "Working hard is great, but you need to be able to turn if off and savor the other parts of your life -- friends, family, hobbies, and fun."

But many companies often confuse workaholics for hard workers, in essence enabling them on their path to self-destruction.

"I wouldn't say that corporations cause workaholism, but I think they truly support it," says Diane Fassel, PhD, president of Newsmeasures, Inc., a Boulder, Colo., business consulting firm, and the author of Working Ourselves to Death.

"Even though workaholism is the addiction de jour in American corporations, I'm not sure that many companies offer employee-assistance programs for it, as they do for alcohol or drug abuse," she tells WebMD. "Instead they often reward it."

Published Aug. 16, 2004.

Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, November-December 2002; vol 71: pp 311-317. Bryan Robinson, PhD, psychotherapist, Asheville, N.C.; professor emeritus, University of North Carolina, Charlotte; author, Chained to the Desk. Tuck T. Saul, PhD, psychotherapist, Columbus, Ohio. "Cheri", recovering workaholic, Menlo Park, Calif. Diane Fassel, PhD, president, Newmeasures, Inc., Boulder, Colo.; author, Working Ourselves to Death.

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