Workaholism: A Growing Problem

Shared Heart Column

Heartfulness       March 2019

with Joyce and Barry Vissell


“Workaholism: A Growing Problem”


In a couple’s counseling session, Dolores accused her husband, Perry, of workaholism. His immediate response was, “Yes, I’m a workaholic.” Joyce and I were surprised at the actual pride revealed in his voice. He continued, “I’m a creative man, an entrepreneur. I thrive on juggling many projects.”


Dolores countered, “Yes, Perry does many things, and provides plenty of money for the family, but he’s gone practically all the time. And when he’s home, it feels like it’s just his body that’s home. The rest of him is still at work, even on the weekends. We had one three-day vacation as a family in a whole year, and he was on his phone most of the time. He wants to have sex with me, but I just can’t. I don’t feel like he’s with me. I can’t go on like this anymore.


Before smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices, people used to work hard at their jobs, but then come home to relax. Farmers, for example, could put in very long hours, but when they were home, there was no more work to be done. And when they were away from their farms on vacation, there was nothing to do but be on vacation. Same with most kinds of work. Workaholism has always existed, but now in the communication age, people can now work from anywhere, night or day. The problem seems to be escalating.


So what’s the difference between working hard and workaholism? When does hard work become pathological? The answer lies in understanding addiction. Workaholics think they are in control of their lives, but their lives are actually out of control. Work, like any addiction, is an escape or distraction from feelings. Workaholics don’t take proper care of themselves or their families (and no amount of money can make up for this). They don’t know how to rest or relax. The compulsion to work can even be deadly. A Japanese government study found one fifth of the Japanese workforce is at risk of death from overwork.


It’s not much better in the U.S. Joyce and I travel internationally each year for our work. I remember once a German workshop participant was incredulous about the typical work habits in the U.S. He was sincerely worried about Americans who seemed to be working all the time and not taking proper care of themselves. And we were amazed at the standard German annual vacation allotment of six weeks, at the time, compared to one to two weeks for many Americans. And Germans have two full days off each weekend, compared to one or even no days off for many Americans.


Although workaholism is not yet recognized as a medical condition by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it can be crippling. And here’s a surprise. A recent summary of the existing research into workaholism by the University of Georgia showed that workaholics are less productive than colleagues with a healthier attitude and approach to work. Their stress levels are higher and their quality of work is often lower.


Work addicts do not really enjoy their work. Work is more of a compulsion than a pleasure. In other words, they work because they feel like they should be working. When they are not working, they feel anxious or depressed. Work, like a drug, merely covers up this anxiety or depression.


Of course, workaholism is a spectrum. It ranges from mildly to severely disabling. But, as often happens with addiction, it can be a slippery slope, and progress to a more severe form before you know it.


Family members and loved ones, like with other forms of addiction, are often the first to notice the problem. I remember when our kids were little, Joyce and I had divided roles. She spent most of the time with the children and I spent most of the time in my office, which was about twenty minutes’ drive from home. I realize now my symptoms of workaholism. I was spending more and more time in the office, and enjoying it less and less. My working was becoming a compulsion, and my family was suffering because of it.


Finally, after missing many dinners with my family, Joyce put her foot down. Actually both feet. She was fed up. She gave me an ultimatum, “Barry, the next time you are going to miss dinner, don’t come home! You can spend the night in the office.”


And that worked like a charm! I never missed dinner again. It was a wakeup call for me.


Joyce could have been the codependent match to my addiction. She could have said, “Barry, I understand how hard you’re working. Me and the children will be patient and take however little we can get from you.” That would only have enabled my addiction, and it probably would have gotten worse.


So what’s the solution to the problem of workaholism, in addition to having a loving spouse with healthy boundaries? Here are some suggestions:


  1. Admit you have a problem. Unlike other addictions, like alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and eating, that are kept secret because of shame, workaholics can be even proud of their “hard work ethic.” Like any addiction, work addiction is multi-faceted, and must be approached in a number of ways. The important thing to remember is you often cannot heal addiction by yourself.


  1. Find a good therapist to uncover and heal the underlying issues. In the counseling sessions with Joyce and me, Perry made the important connection between his father’s insistence that he would never amount to anything, and his compulsion to work. He was working to prove his father wrong. He is now attending Workaholics Anonymous meetings. And Dolores understood her own codependence and lack of healthy boundaries. She is now standing up for herself in the relationship.


  1. Participate fully in Workaholics Anonymous. With growing awareness of the problem of work addiction, new groups are sprouting up more and more. Group support is just as important as individual support with a therapist. They are more effective combined.


My own recovery depended on my understanding my unconscious need to try to earn love by working harder. I needed to learn that busyness does not equate with meaningfulness. Knowing that I am loved for who I am rather than what I do, has made all the difference. I no longer need to compulsively work. Gradually I am becoming a human being rather than a human doing. I am learning how to get things done in the office without sacrificing my health.

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