Here's a riddle. What addiction destroys families, ruins the health of its victims, is covered by layers of denial and rationalization, yet we honour the addicts as role models? According to Dr. Bryan Robinson, in his book, Chained to the Desk, work addiction afflicts as many as 20% of North American adults.

Robinson lists 10 signs of work addiction:

  • They are always in a rush and hyperbusy. Not content to do one job at a time the work addict will schedule multiple tasks with minimal time for completion.
  • They play the control game. They must control every activity to see that it gets done right.
  • Nothing is ever perfect enough for them. They are tough to work for and even worse to live with.
  • Their relationships crumble in the name of work. They let down family and friends by neglecting responsibilities and missing events, signifying that work is more important than family and relationships.
  • They produce work in binges. Like the alcoholic they will even hide work, sneaking it along on vacation, or continuing to work in their heads while physically appearing to be present in a social or family activity.
  • They are restless, no-fun grumps. Like all other addictions, it takes more of the behaviour to achieve relief, and without the addictive activity the sufferer enters withdrawal.
  • They experience work trances and DWWs (driving while working). They tune out or even have blackouts for periods of time or during conversations because their minds were occupied with work.
  • They are impatient and irritable.
  • They think they're only as good as their last achievement. As with other addictions there is a progressive need to achieve more, as the addict develops increasing tolerance requiring more drug to get the same high.
  • They have no time for self-care. They skip meals, sleep, fun, and exercise in their treadmill existence.

As in all other addictions the addictive behaviour provides needed comfort for the addict. It allows the sufferer to escape from uncomfortable situations and relationships while temporarily raising self-worth. John Bradshaw coined the term "human doing" to describe the person whose self-esteem depends on a constant supply of accomplishments. Denial, one's inability to recognize the magnitude of the consequences of one's behaviours, is perhaps even greater with this addiction than with others. And because of short-term benefits to employers, organizations and society, cover-up and enabling of the addictive behaviour is everywhere. This epidemic is growing with the help of new technology like cell phones, pocket computer or organizers, and beepers that dissolve the boundaries between personal time and working time, combined with advertising telling us happiness depends upon endlessly increasing consumption.

So, what's the problem? By definition addictions hurt the addicts and hurt the people around them. Families break down; children of absent working parents experience feelings of abandonment and are more likely to experience psychiatric or addictive disorders. People with work addiction suffer from medical and psychiatric conditions commonly seen with chronic, unrelieved stress: high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, increased susceptibility to infection or cancer, peptic ulcer disease, anxiety, depression, and suicide. The highly productive worker with work addiction develops characteristic worsening problems with attendance, performance, and behaviour, dragging workplace morale down as their condition deteriorates.

Can work addicts become healthy family members and employees? What needs to happen for a workaholic to recover?

Like all addictions, the first step is for the addict to realize there is a problem and decide they want to change. An effective technique is to have the work-addicted person perform an inventory, honestly listing both the benefits of their excessive work and its consequences on their health and relationships. Only if they become convinced the costs outweigh the benefits will they decide to get the help they need.

Remember, for them work is the solution, the way they fill that hole inside to comfort themselves. Simply stopping the addictive behaviour only makes the workaholic feel worse. The recovering person must develop a repertoire of nonchemical coping strategies to feel better while maintaining balance. It helps to sketch out a picture, the "pie of life," in which each necessary life activity is given a proportionate piece of the pie. Slices of the pie might include exercise, rest, fun, nutrition, intimacy, work, spiritual growth, creativity, and whatever else is needed to feel whole. It is often worthwhile to visit a skilled psychotherapist for several sessions of cognitive therapy. This helps the recovering person identify distorted or negative patterns of thinking that keep them stuck. The work addict must cultivate a network of social support to reinforce their new behaviours. Mutual support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous that are so important in assisting alcoholics with their recovery are less available to the workaholic, so the recovering workaholic will need to creatively use other groups for support such as music, athletic, special interest and craft groups, or group activities offered by religious organizations. Finally, people with all sorts of addictions often do better if they embark on a spiritual journey to explore their own spiritual identity and needs.

If you are interested in learning more about work addictions you might want to read Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children and the Clinicians who Treat Them, by Bryan Robinson, PhD (New York University Press, 1998).

Dr. Ray Baker, MD 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team