How to Identify and Address Workaholism

By Margaret Chuong-Kim

As the adage goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Translated into reality, however, a lifestyle of all work and no play has more serious consequences than simply making Jack dull. Maintaining a workaholic lifestyle will, over time, inevitably lead to a decline in the quality of one's relationships and health.

There are many myths to workaholism. One is that men predominate when, in fact, the problem is equal among genders. Another myth is that workaholism is exclusive to paid employment, but it can actually occur in many unpaid activities. So long as any activity is carried to an extreme, it can be considered workaholism.

It’s also a popular notion that workaholics are driven by a poor sense of self and are quite miserable, but there are actually different types of workaholism, and the workaholic may actually be happy diving into the multitude of tasks at work. It is not necessarily thought of in a negative way by the individual experiencing it, even though it is commonly believed to be an addiction.

While we hear a lot about this “disorder,” workaholism is not actually an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR) – the diagnostic bible for psychiatrists and psychologists in North America. In actuality, workaholism is considered a symptom of obsessive/compulsive personality disorder which is characterized by perfectionism, inflexibility, and preoccupation with work.

It is the obsessive-compulsive workaholic that we are most familiar with: Jack who has low self-esteem and feelings of emptiness, and does his darndest to overcome these through his work. He’s driven by an inner compulsion to work, and he's obsessed with thinking about how he can get more done and be more productive. His family nags him to spend more time at home, which makes him feel worse, so he spends even more time at the office to avoid the discomfort of feeling like a disappointment.

Then there’s the achievement-oriented workaholic: Jack who has high self-esteem and loves being productive. He gets a thrill from the challenge of having to complete tasks and a sense of satisfaction from a job well done – and then on to the next task!

Last, there’s necessary-to-be-a-workaholic workaholic: Jack who perceives that he has no other choice than to work long hours to get the job done in order to make ends meet, or to get the promotion that will get him financially stable enough to stop working so much. Except that once he gets the promotion, there’s no end to the work.

While the personality characteristics of these types of workaholics are quite different, the effect their drive to work has on their lives outside of the workplace is quite similar. This extreme commitment to work often leads to a host of health problems, most commonly exhaustion, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

Overworking on a regular basis results in the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol within the body, which can ultimately create the following consequences:

  • Buildup of plaque in the blood vessels and an increased risk of experiencing heart attacks and strokes.
  • Increased risk of experiencing anxiety attacks, ulcers, burnout, and depression.
  • Increased risk of experiencing weight gain and smoking or alcohol consumption.

To put it simply, workaholism is bad for your health – and most workaholics seem to know this. Canada’s National Population Health Survey (1996-97) found that workaholics were less likely than other workers to rate themselves as being satisfied with their health.

Due to the disproportionate amount of time and emotional energy they put into their work, workaholics are likely to have relational problems with the people in their lives outside of their jobs.

Workaholism is a major source of marital breakdown; the spouse often feels lonely and abandoned.

Children of workaholics are more likely to be depressed and exhibit symptoms of parentification – behaving in a mature and responsible fashion to carry the burden left in place of the absent parent – than children of regular workers.

Families of the workaholic often receive little or no support or understanding because relatives and friends usually view the workaholic as merely a hard worker trying to provide for the family. Workaholic tendencies are even accepted, encouraged, and rewarded by society and corporate culture. Employees who put in hard work via extra hours are often on the receiving end of fat paychecks, bonuses, and promotions.

Since many workaholics often deny having a problem, how would you know if you were one? To start you might ask yourself if you can enjoy life and feel a sense of purpose when you’re not at work. If the answer is “no” then that should ring some alarm bells. You might also consider consulting a checklist to see how closely you match typical workaholic characteristics. Here are five qualities to look for:

1. Preoccupation with work (almost always thinking about it).
2. Not comfortable with delegating (need to control every detail).
3. Other aspects of life (such as family and personal) are neglected.
4. Other parts of life are merged with work (e.g. hobbies are turned into businesses or family members are incorporated into the business – you hire your spouse to be the bookkeeper, for instance).
5. Lying about doing something else when you’re really working (e.g. You tell your family you’re going to play soccer with your friends then head straight for the office).

An article published in Oprah Magazine’s July 2007 edition and written by Sara Reistad-Long, describes exercises recommended by Stew Friedman, PhD, director of the Wharton School Work/Life Integration Project for figuring out where the workaholic’s priorities and life-ideals lie.

To start, write down the following four categories:

  • Self
  • Work
  • Home/Family
  • Community/Society

Under each category, write down the elements that it encompasses. For instance, under “self," you might include health, spirituality, etc. Under “home,” you might include spouse, children, etc. Give each element two rankings from zero to one hundred; one ranking for its importance to you and another ranking for how much attention it gets each week. Then see how closely the numbers match.

When you’ve done the above exercise, go back to the first three to five elements under each category that you rated as most important. Consider what the expectations are, yours and the other person’s (e.g. your spouse, your child), and how well these expectations are being met. With this newfound knowledge and insight, you can better figure out how to reorganize your life in order to meet your ideals.

Friedman states: “The solution shouldn’t be how to compromise your career but how to enhance performance overall – professional and personal.”

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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