A lot of people still have a fairly simplistic view of addiction: go to rehab, maybe battle with a relapse or two and then go on with life as usual. But this disease is cunning and persistent. Even those who successfully eliminate drugs and alcohol from their lives may find themselves trying to diet away the 30 pounds they gained during rehab or losing days of their lives to online shopping or gambling.
Among CEOs, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, we often see addictive patterns surface at work. Some end up in treatment because their Type A personalities and obsession with professional perfection have literally driven them to drink or abuse drugs. One study found that people who worked at least 50 hours a week were 1.2 to 1.5 times more likely to develop alcohol-related problems than people who worked less.
Others find that they recover from an addiction to drugs only to overload themselves with work, often to avoid dealing with the same issues that drove them to abuse drugs. Now, in addition to a problem with workaholism, they are at increased risk of drug relapse.
The Dark Side of Overwork
The expression goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” But in the current economic climate, does anyone care if Jack is dull? So long as he’s hard-working and productive, his employer is delighted that Jack devotes all of his time and energy to work. Although his problem may be overlooked by his employer and outsiders who envy his success, his family and friends are sure to notice.
Like other addictions, neglected spouses, children and other loved ones are often the first to detect a work addiction. Ironically, workaholism also imperils the employment relationship because the workaholic is prone to burnout or, despite putting in ungodly hours, works inefficiently or uncooperatively.
Eventually the workaholic loses interest in hobbies and socializing, instead spending every free moment thinking about or doing work. The chronic stress and inattention to their own needs for food, exercise and sleep increases their risk of heart disease, digestive disorders and other physical health problems as well as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. Research shows that working more than eight hours a day translates into a 40 to 80 percent higher risk of heart disease.
On the Rise, but Still Unrecognized
Despite the similarities between workaholism and drug addiction, workaholism isn’t recognized as an addiction but rather a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, many experts, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine, have redefined addiction to encompass behavior or “process” addictions such as gambling, food, sex and work.
Modern life is a breeding ground for workaholics. While there is no harm in working hard and striving to achieve goals, Western culture glamorizes the pursuit of success, sometimes at the cost of all else. Tell a prospective employer you’re an alcoholic, you can say farewell to that paycheck. Tell them you’re a workaholic and you just edged out the competition.
In difficult economic times, the pressure to give everything to a job or risk losing it is even greater. The average American is working more (11 hours more per week than in the 1970s) and enjoying it less (only 45 percent are satisfied, the lowest level in 22 years). This social acceptance – and even glorification – of excessive work makes it difficult for compulsive “climbers” to recognize that they may have a problem.
Ambition or Workaholism?
Workaholics don’t just work hard; they have an uncontrollable need to work, often to gain a sense of control or to escape a fear of failure, intimacy or boredom. Last year, Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen, a psychology professor at the University of Bergen, and her team developed the first standardized tool to measure workaholism. The Bergen Work Addiction Scale asks whether the individual works so much it negatively affects their health, becomes stress if they are prohibited from working or works to cope with difficult feelings, among other questions.
Other telltale signs of workaholism include:
- Sneaking in email, phone calls or other work when loved ones aren’t looking
- Feeling unable to relax
- Regularly working more than planned
- Feeling a constant need to stay busy
- Never using vacation or sick time
- Engaging in substance abuse and other unhealthy coping mechanisms
Of course, workaholics may not be able to recognize these symptoms in themselves or may be unmotivated to change. It is often up to concerned family members and friends to intervene.
Ending the Addictive Cycle
Not every therapist or addiction treatment program addresses this type of cross-addiction, nor do they understand that the solution isn’t always as simple as “don’t take work home” or “limit yourself to 40 hours a week.” In specialized drug rehabs for professionals, treatment focuses on the issues underlying both substance abuse and workaholism, including trauma, low self-esteem and a history of family dysfunction.
To prevent jumping from one addiction to the other, treatment should also involve cultivating passions outside of work and developing skills to achieve work-life balance as well as long-term monitoring and aftercare. Family therapy can help repair strained relationships and address any issues at home that contribute to addictive patterns. Professionals can also benefit from meditation, yoga and other stress management techniques.
Having a career that professionals both value and feel valued at can be a protective factor in preventing addiction and staying in recovery. But if that career jeopardizes their health or relationships by pushing them to abuse drugs or to escape problems through compulsive work, any professional success they achieve will be meaningless.