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Living to Work: A Look at Workaholics

July 28, 2010
Every employer wants his or her work force to be productive and dedicated. But what happens when an employee crosses the line and becomes addicted to work?

“I used work to defend myself against unwelcome emotional states – to modulate anxiety, sadness, and frustration the way a pothead uses dope and an alcoholic uses booze,” Bryan Robinson, UNC Charlotte professor emeritus and psychotherapist, writes of his addiction.

Robinson’s experience led him to study work addiction – what he calls “the best-dressed problem of the 21st century” – and its consequences. He related his struggles in his book, Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians who Treat Them.

An Uphill Battle

In a society that places high value on work and lauds individuals for their strong work ethic, getting workaholism recognized as a real, dangerous problem has been an uphill battle. According to Robinson, entrenched attitudes and inaccurate perceptions continue to obscure a grounded understanding of work addiction.

“A lot of people tease they are becoming a workaholic. We don’t tease about being alcoholic or overeating. It’s something people still don’t take seriously,” Robinson said.

Moreover, workaholism is too often portrayed as a virtue. “I continue to be appalled at how society, and the media in particular, continues to extol workaholism,” Robinson said. “There’s still this notion that it’s a good thing. In my private practice I see people fall apart, their children are miserable. True workaholism within the context of the family is a devastating problem to everyone concerned.”

Robinson said a simple scenario plainly illustrates the difference between a workaholic and a hard worker: The hard worker sits at his/her desk, dreaming about being on the ski slopes, while the workaholic is on the ski slopes dreaming about getting back to work.

Robinson said workaholics tend to be separatists, preferring to work alone and focusing on the details of their jobs. They often attach their egos to their work. Healthy workers see the bigger picture and work cooperatively with others toward common goals. Workaholics often create or look for work to do. While healthy workers sometimes work long hours, they focus on getting the job done efficiently.

Perhaps the most salient distinction is this: Healthy workers experience work as a necessary and sometimes fulfilling obligation; workaholics see it as a haven in a dangerous, emotionally unpredictable world.

“During the tax season, CPAs work overtime and weekends. Sometimes the workload requires it. It becomes a problem only when you feel in your bones you want to work or need to work,” Robinson said.

The payoff for the workaholic is emotional and neurophysiological – the adrenaline rush, or biochemical euphoria, becomes the fuel for the addiction and is followed by withdrawal. Robinson explained that the workaholic might binge, working around the clock for days on end, or the workaholic might view work as his/her life, and family and friends as a secondary distraction.

Scope of the Problem

“We estimate from our extensive studies that one-quarter of the population can be classified as workaholic,” Robinson said.

Workaholics and their families often don’t seek help until there are severe disruptions within the balance of the family system or a crisis occurs, such as a failed marriage, a child acting out or job loss. In fact, many workaholics have conflicts with colleagues and are fired because of their behavior.

“So many organizations hire workaholics because they think they’ll get more out of them, but research shows they don’t make the best workers; the rate of burnout is higher, the trajectory of their careers is lower, and they are not team players,” Robinson noted.

Work-addicted men frequently excuse their behavior by reasoning that they’re trying to be good providers, when in truth they are trying to assuage emotional states of which they’re often unaware.

But the repercussions of the workaholic’s behavior are far-reaching and measurable. Findings suggest that adult children of workaholics have greater psychological problems and more health complaints than do adult children of nonworkaholics. Moreover, children from workaholic families experience more anxiety and self-esteem issues than those from alcoholic families, Robinson said.

Smartphones: Not So Smart?

Daily factors that enable workaholism include a chaotic or otherwise unpleasant home situation or family members placing demands for more material goods on the wage earner. Robinson also points to media stereotypes and advertisements, as well as embedded cultural beliefs, as enabling factors.

Of course, the list of enablers would be incomplete without the addition of “technology,” or what Robinson deems the “Blackberrization” of our lives. Long gone are the days when blackberries mostly were known as an ingredient in pie instead of handheld devices designed to keep workers online 24/7.

“In the 1970s, we were saying our technology was going to free us up, but it has enslaved us. There are no boundaries. You can be working anywhere on the planet, any time of the day,” Robinson said. Human interaction has changed, and according to Robinson, suffered, as a consequence of the Blackberry and other smartphones.

“I do a lot of work with couples in my private practice, and this is a huge problem. People watch TV together or text side-by-side, and there’s little interaction,” he said.

However, Robinson noted, it’s not the technology that’s at fault; each of us has a responsibility in how we use it. “It’s up to us to draw the line. You don’t leave a hammer or saw out after you’ve worked on a cabinet – you put those things away. The same can be true for our devices.”

Workaholics, however, often require professional help to recognize their addiction and get treatment that encourages them to put the Blackberry or laptop computer away. Getting help might not be as simple as going to a therapist because, according to Robinson, many therapists don’t recognize workaholism, and some therapists are themselves work-addicted. Workaholics Anonymous has chapters worldwide and can provide referral services for the workaholics and their families, Robinson said.

At a time when he unemployment rate has skyrocketed, broaching the subject of work addiction becomes more difficult than in times of prosperity, but Robinson is determined to continue to preach the gospel of work-life balance to the public.

“The feedback I get is once people start to understand work addiction, they look at it in a different way – and they start to see the damage it’s caused them,” he said. “Education is the key to reform.”

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