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Compulsive Work Addiction

October 12, 2009 Mental Health

With the national unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent – and higher in some hard-hit areas of the country – anyone who is still employed is understandably worried about the future. Will they still have a job tomorrow, next week or next month? What do they have to do to keep their job? And, with so many companies downsizing within the last year, the remaining workers simply have to do more work to pick up the slack. But even without the current economic downturn, the simple truth is that more and more Americans are slaves to their jobs. In short, they suffer from a condition known as compulsive work addiction.

According to a recent University of California Santa Barbara study, more than 31 percent of college-age male workers worked more than 50 hours per week on a regular basis. That’s just one study. Corporations know that compulsive work addiction and burnout are a serious problem and many have engaged consultants or initiated programs to try to deal with the issue. This isn’t compassion on their part. Lost productivity due to burnout, workplace stress and compulsive work addiction can seriously impact the bottom line.

But here we’re concerned with the effects of compulsive work addiction on the individual and his or her family and friends.

Burnout versus Compulsive Work Addiction

Classic burnout is a very serious condition that involves physical, mental and emotional symptoms that intensify over time. Without treatment, burnout leads to clinical depression. Work addiction is a very different condition whose roots often lie in the individual’s childhood. But, similar to burnout, without treatment, the worst-case scenarios end in the same type of clinical depression. Both burnouts and work addicts seem to be driven, committed, dedicated and completely identified with their jobs. It’s the internal mechanism that is different. Work addiction is internally like an addiction to alcohol, drugs or gambling in that the addict has to have the fix – in this case, the fix that work provides. He or she simply can’t do without it.

It is important here to further differentiate between a hard worker (or Type A personality) and a workaholic. The hard worker appears, in many respects, to have the same traits as the workaholic. Yet they are always able to set healthy boundaries, clearly delineating work from play or non-work. Driven by underlying emotional issues, the compulsive work addict is characterized by compulsive behaviors. Workaholics never take vacations, or they bring their work with them on the vacation. Research, however, shows that too much work without balance and rest will eventually result in breakdown. Compulsive work addiction is extremely dangerous to your health.

Negative Health Effects of Compulsive Work Addiction

Each individual has a unique tipping point as to how much stress and tension they can endure. As such, the physical and psychological symptoms of work-related stress, work addiction and exhaustion will vary. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Anger and irritability – often unpredictable and explosive
  • Emotional outbursts, sometimes to the brink of tears
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Extreme fatigue or low energy levels
  • Chest pains, shortness of breath
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns
  • Overeating or eating too little
  • Jaw clenching and grinding of teeth
  • Muscle cramps
  • Stomach problems
  • Profuse sweating
  • Nail biting or other nervous twitches
  • Faintness or dizziness
  • Lack of sexual desire

How To Recognize Compulsive Work Addiction

Workaholics, like other addicts, may often be in deep denial about their addiction. The following signposts of a workaholic are adapted from Workaholics Anonymous (WA), a 12-step organization dedicated to helping individuals overcome their work addiction.

  • Inability to relax – The workaholic finds it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to put aside work and relax. This spills over into every facet of the workaholic’s life, often seriously jeopardizing relationships.
  • Concerned with image – Image is all-important to the workaholic. Without the constant approval of others, the workaholic feels less important, unlikeable. He or she feels that working harder will make others like them more.
  • Unreasonable self demands – No demand is too unreasonable for the workaholic who pushes more and more tasks on his or her plate. The workaholic no longer is able to distinguish between job-related demands and those that are self-imposed. The lack of ability to pace results in overscheduled commitments, racing to beat the deadline, afraid to fall behind, and then working in a furious last-minute burst of frenzied energy to complete the mountain of work. With no end in sight, no conclusion of work, no rest, inevitably, breakdown and burnout result.
  • Perfectionist – The workaholic has to do things the right way. Mistakes are not acceptable to the workaholic. Since no one else can do the job quite as well, the compulsive work addict can’t delegate tasks to others. Instead, he has to do the job himself. As WA says, “Thinking ourselves indispensable often prevents our progress. Unrealistic expectations often cheat us of contentment.”
  • Can’t wait – Waiting is anathema to the compulsive work addict. “Gotta get it done today.” As a result, the workaholic is more concerned with the quantity of the output rather than the quality or the work. Impatient to the extreme, the workaholic’s work is often not the best because of his or her skewed sense of crisis timing.
  • Too serious and responsible – Everything has to have a purpose to the workaholic. There’s no time to just stand by idle. Finding it difficult to relax, workaholics often work even at play, and are less and less able to laugh or feel a sense of renewal. How can they, when there’s so much work to do?
  • Work is an addiction – Just like alcohol is to alcoholic, drugs to a drug addict, gambling to a compulsive gambler, work is an addiction to the workaholic. The compulsive work addict stashes work away so there’s always something meaningful to do. He or she takes no pleasure in vacations and would rather be working, and lies to himself and others about how much work he has to do.
  • Home is part of the workplace – To the workaholic, home is just part of the office. There’s no boundary separating them. The work still has to be done – at the expense of a good night’s rest, spending time with the family, relaxing. Everyone around the workaholic arranges their time to suit his or her schedule, in the fruitless hope that they’ll eventually get face-time.
  • Work helps deal with life’s uncertainties – The workaholic worries constantly, plans and overcompensates for every contingency, hoping to thus be able to rationalize and deal with every uncertainty in life. Always having to be in control, the workaholic loses all sense of creativity, spontaneity and flexibility.
  • Overworking impacts other areas – In all this, the compulsive work addict’s health gets neglected, his or her relationships become strained or broken, spirituality is forgotten and recreation also suffers. The workaholic’s life is so out-of-balance that he or she is always thinking of the next assignment or task, everything is work-related, and there’s never a moment to enjoy life.
  • Can’t love or accept self – Work has become so integral to the workaholic’s life that he or she can’t feel any love or self-acceptance. The workaholic uses work to gain others’ approval. In essence, the compulsive work addict justifies his existence and finds his identity in work.
  • Escape feelings through work – Since feelings are too painful, the workaholic uses work to hide from them. As a result, the compulsive work addict has no idea who he really is or what he wants and needs.
  • Grew up in chaotic home – Many work addicts grew up in highly stressful, chaotic homes. As they matured, they sought to replicate the level of intensity and stress in the workplace. If there isn’t a crisis, the workaholic creates one. In fact, the workaholic needs to simulate a crisis in order to truly become motivated to do his or her “best work.” This, however, is often just the opposite. After the adrenalin kicks in and overworking to get the job done, the workaholic often suffers withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and depression. See-sawing back and forth, these mood swings wreak havoc on the individual’s mental and physical health.

Treatment for Compulsive Work Addiction

Often the workaholic needs the prodding from family and friends to seek help when their lives are out of kilter – skewed as they are all toward work. Compulsive work addiction is treatable, but it takes time. The standard treatments include seeking help through therapists, psychiatrists or psychologists or trained and certified mental health professionals. Specialists in compulsive work addiction may be tough to find, as this is a new and growing field.

One form of therapy that may be helpful is cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. This is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying negative thoughts and patterns of behavior and modifying them. CBT concentrates on five aspects of the client’s life:

  • Work
  • Relationships
  • Play
  • Self
  • Spiritual life

Self-help groups such as Workaholics Anonymous offer meetings by phone, online or in person. Their website lists meeting locations by state and international. The organization also provides literature, links and other resources. There are no dues, and anyone can join. The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop working compulsively.

In the end, if a compulsive work addict truly wants to regain balance in his or her life, reconnect with family and friends, and honestly put the obsession to work behind, there is help available. To be successful in recovery requires time and a real commitment.

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