Contrary to popular belief, workaholism is not defined as the amount of time spent at work. After all, we’ve all seen people aglow with inspiration, happily burning the midnight oil to finish projects that they love. Would we consider this behavior workaholism? Probably not.
Rather, workaholism is about the purpose and energy behind the work. As author Julia Cameron notes in The Artist’s Way, “There is a treadmill quality to workaholism.”
When you’re living as as workaholic, there’s a sense that you’re trapped on a machine and that you can’t get off. There’s very little energy given to self-nurturance, rest, or play. Work becomes all-consuming, and you lose sight of how to get back to a better quality of life.
What Is Workaholism?
According to the American Psychological Association, the definition of workaholism includes these three main components:
- An individual feels internally pressured and compelled to work
- An individual has persistent thoughts about work while away from work
- An individual works beyond what is reasonably expected despite the potential for negative consequences
Is Workaholism An Addiction?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse currently defines drug addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
While workaholism and drug addiction do differ in notable respects – perhaps most significantly, the degree of biochemical and neurological involvement – workaholism can fit under the category of an addictive behavior.
As noted above, workaholism is at play when an individual persists in excessive work despite negative consequences.
The Link Between Drug Addiction and Workaholism
As of this writing, there isn’t very much scientific data on the relationship between drug addiction and workaholism. However, there are several studies linking mental and emotional health issues such as depression and anxiety with workaholism.
In one study published on the non-profit open access site PLOS, researchers concluded that having symptoms of an underlying psychiatric disorder is in fact associated with workaholism.
They identified ADHD and anxiety as two of the mental health conditions with the strongest links with workaholism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression also making notable impact.
And yes, these are the very same underlying core issues that are strongly linked to substance abuse!
The Psychology of Workaholism
“Many of us learned that keeping busy…kept us at a distance from our feelings…Some of us took the ways we busied ourselves—becoming overachievers & workaholics—as self esteem…But whenever our inner feeling did not match our outer surface, we were doing ourselves a disservice…If stopping to rest meant being barraged with this discrepancy, no wonder we were reluctant to cease our obsessive activity.”
So writes Maureen Brady in her book Beyond Survival. Brady’s insightful words highlight several truths about workaholism.
First, it gives us a way to maintain distance from feelings that feel unmanageable. It makes a space between us and our anger, us and our grief.
Next, workaholism allows us to create a very highly competent “outer” self, which feels like a positive step since this outer self meets with a lot of social approval.
However, we feel increasingly uncertain and disingenuous as the gap between our internal state and our external state widens. We seem as though we have it all together, but deep inside we’re hurting, grieving, and raging.
Finally, we get stuck in an awful addictive cycle. We want to avoid facing up to our increasingly unsettling feelings, so we work even more in order to avoid them, and then they build up even more, so we work even harder to avoid them, and so forth.
Fortunately, there is a way to prevent burnout and break the addictive cycle.
How to Heal from Workaholism
The key to healing from workaholism is to address and heal underlying core issues that lead to the addictive behavior in the first place.
Recovering from workaholism isn’t necessarily about quitting your job or retiring early. Rather, it’s about looking at those disowned feelings that set you working so hard in the first place.
It’s about working with a trained mental health professional on your underlying core issues surrounding depression, anxiety, trauma, loss, and despair.
The healing process will feel challenging at first, but it’s worth doing the work of stepping off the treadmill and into a whole new life.