Workaholism: Life out of Balance

In the modern, industrialized world, hard work is admired and people who demonstrate a high level of commitment to success in the workplace are often highly acclaimed. However, a compulsive drive to work can be just as detrimental as other behavioral disorders such as compulsive gambling, eating or shopping.

The term “workaholism,” coined by an American psychiatrist in 1971, describes a need to work that becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with family, social life and health. Studies indicate that working hours have increased steadily in the last two decades, with many people regularly working more than 60 hours per week. According to “Psychology Today,” the problem is especially pronounced in the United States and Canada. Technology has not made it easier to disconnect from work, many people are "online" 24/7.

Workaholism may manifest in anxiety, irritability and depression, as well as physical problems such as exhaustion, a higher incidence of colds and flu, high blood pressure, stomach problems, muscle and joint pain, headaches and heart or kidney disorders. Because they tend to ignore their health and work through exhaustion, workaholics tend to have a high rate of absenteeism due to illness while still being "connected" by being online with a tablet or smartphone.

What is Workaholism?

Studies indicate that in spite of long hours at the job, workaholics are no more effective than people who work reasonable hours. Although they may be wealthier than the average worker, working so many hours means less time to spend their hard-earned money. As a result, workplace satisfaction has diminished. Detaching from work has been made more difficult by technology.

Experts believe that for many workers, unhealthy work habits are rooted in childhood. For example, a person may become a workaholic in an attempt to please a controlling parent. Children who grow up in poverty may become workaholics (“I’ll never be poor again!”). Like other addictions, workaholics may use work as a temporary refuge from inner battles such as anxiety and depression. Many compulsive workers struggle with undiagnosed ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Syndrome).

Signs of Workaholism

If you’re concerned that your work life is out of balance, consider the following signs and symptoms. Workholics often:

  • Work more than originally intended. For example, a workaholic may plan to work 30 minutes, then end up staying at work an extra two or three hours.
  • Typically work on weekends and evenings.
  • Check your smartphone often, even during “time off” and mealtimes.
  • Think of ways to free up more time to work.
  • Find it difficult to delegate tasks to others.
  • Fail to use earned vacation days or other time off.
  • Often experience great pleasure by doing work, followed by feelings of anxiety or guilt.
  • Ignore the warnings of friends, family or co-workers.
  • Work during evening meals or family time.
  • Skip lunch or regularly scheduled breaks.
  • Limit friendships to people who understand the importance of work.
  • Disrespect people who fail to place high priority on work.
  • Volunteer to complete tasks for co-workers who have no time.
  • Think of plans for the next day while in bed at night.
  • Use (prescription) drugs and alcohol to increase alertness and to “calm down” before going to sleep.

Can Workaholics get Better?

With treatment, workaholics can learn to balance work with other aspects of life. However, workaholism is much like any other addiction; getting better requires work and commitment. Workaholics, who are often in denial about the problem, must carefully examine their attitude towards work and why they continue to work compulsively despite threats to a family, social life and health.

A skilled therapist can help a compulsive worker learn to be more effective and to accomplish more in less time. Workaholics learn problem solving skills, relaxation techniques, self-care and development of a regular exercise program. Family therapy may help workaholics reconnect with loved ones and relearn how to have fun. There is a saying which holds true to many people: “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said that they would have liked to have worked more”.

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