Workaholism: A Professional Addiction

Productivity is rewarded in our society. This and other factors lead to overwork and, when in the extreme, a workaholic. Among doctors, up to 25% have this condition.

Working has always numbed my pain. It gave me comfort and seemed to be a safe place for me. The problem though was that I became like a machine. And, like a mechanical device, I wore out, only it was sooner rather than later.

— Anonymous quote from a self-professed workaholic

“Work harder, work harder, work harder.”

Some people never catch up nor are they satisfied with themselves. One reason is that their goals keep shifting. When they accomplish one thing, they stretch higher the next time and the time after.

This is a workaholic — someone who needs to work to the exclusion of other healthy options in life, not because they need to work to get the job done. This is a person who dreams of being at the office when at the seashore, not the other way around.

As a result of spending so many hours working, a workaholic may not start or be able to sustain friendships or do what is needed to hold a marriage together. The same person may also not spend time with offspring or seek pleasures that everyone else enjoys. Engaging in a hobby isn’t possible. Work takes precedence. Some workaholics sadly don’t even take time for their own health.

Their need to be constantly involved in job activity may stem from a dysfunctional childhood where studying and exemplary behavior provided an escape. It may also be that great emphasis was given to achievement during the formative years. If a parent was a workaholic, the child may follow by example (the only time the youngster could be with this parent was when she/he was working).

Obsessive compulsive behavior, perfectionism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation have also been suggested as predisposing factors — all traits known to be prominent in a physician population.

Eventually problems begin to surface for the afflicted person. She or he becomes less effective because the inherent work-life balance that provides human stability has been interrupted. Pain in life, instead of being soothed with work as before, becomes too great for the workaholic to ignore. She or he becomes increasingly ineffective. Irritability and depression may lead to something worse.

Greater insight

Steve Sussman from the Departments of Preventive Medicine and Psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles recently wrote a review of workaholism that can be found online in the Journal of Addiction Research Therapy. It provides a far greater understanding of the problem than is included in this short essay. Further, he offers prevention and treatment options including Workaholics Anonymous where more reading selections can be found.

A chapter (“Understanding and Diagnosing Workaholism,” by Bryan E. Robinson and Claudia Flowers) in the reference book, Handbook of Addictive Disorders, edited by Robert Holman Coombs (2004) is riveting and a must read for those who think they are afflicted. The initial few paragraphs are a self-confession by Robinson relating to his own workaholism. In it he relates spending the day of his father’s funeral sequestered away at his university desk because work relieved his pain — a kind of medication so to speak.

For those who are not enough of workaholics to search out this book, there is a piece online where Robinson is cited. It is “A Field Guide to the Workaholic,” from Psychology Today.