Categorized | Life

Facing the Reality of Non-Stop Work

Posted on 01 November 2008

I recently checked myself into a day-spa where, for one heavenly hour, a guy named Bruce rubbed steamy-hot lava stones up and down my back. Such pampering isn’t part of my regular routine, but does serve an emergent therapeutic purpose. Having overworked myself for weeks, I craved some stress-free time and an abandonment of deadline pressure. Feeling re-charged, the workweek that followed seemed more manageable and within my control.

Many people don’t know when to get off the work treadmill. Addicted to their jobs, they won’t admit the damage to their health, their families, and overall quality of life. Workaholism is a common term for an ugly, modern-day disorder, one that affects more and more Americans every year. To ward off potentially devastating effects, we have an individual burden to recognize the signs of this sickness and help ourselves–or those we care for–to seek out treatment.

Drawing the Line with Obsession
There’s a fine line between those who work very hard and those who are obsessed with their work. The demands we face while “making a living” often keep many of us in the office on our lunch-hour, busting out the lap-top on our commute home by train, or occasionally treating our significant others to an apologetic dinner–penance for working late all week. But we usually know when to schedule downtime, pass over a new project, or even call in sick if we’re feeling a bit burned out.

There’s a fine line between those who work very hard and those who are obsessed with their work.

Workaholics are not of the same breed. They carry on like this every day, every week. Their batteries are constantly charged, whether in or out of the office. According to Bryan E. Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk (NYU Press, 1998), workaholism can be defined as “an obsessive compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an overindulgence in work to the exclusion of most other life activities.”

Signs of Workaholism
According to Robinson, red flags include rushing, restlessness, scheduling back-to-back appointments, reluctance to delegate tasks, perfectionism, family neglect, and even slacking off on personal hygiene. Their non-stop pace usually begins to evoke distressful symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and exhaustion.

Surprisingly, work addiction may not even start in the workplace. “It has its roots in, and is a consequence of, family dysfunction in childhood,” Mr. Robinson writes. Work addicts are often children of alcoholic or workaholic parents, according to the author. Consequently, at the emotional core of a work addict, we find an ego-driven, controlling person with an “obsessive need to excel, a compulsive need for approval, a deep-seated unhappiness, fear of intimacy, and a sense of low self-worth,” writes Robinson. “Workaholics become dependent on their work to define who they are and gain a positive sense of themselves.”

Regardless of how satisfying their job is, workaholics often dive into their work as an escape or psychological safe haven. The medical community and society at large seems unwilling to validate workaholism as an illness–and actually helps to fuel it. While alcoholics and drug-addicts are easy to profile, and subsequently treat, “Many clinicians do not recognize work-addiction as a problem,” writes Robinson. “I have seen misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis because of this lack of awareness.”

Work Addiction Glamorized?
Another enabling force is advertising, which tends to glamorize work-addiction. Just think of all the commercials and print ads for cell-phones and electronic organizers. The owners are slick, polished professionals speeding down life’s fast track. Technology, information, and mobility equals power–and entrance into a more elite class.

Unfortunately, for the families of work-addicts, relationships suffer hard consequences. In their loneliness, the spouse or mate of a workaholic often experiences a loss of intimacy, feels powerless, and becomes resentful. For children of work-addicts, there’s a tendency to blame themselves for family discord, according to Robinson.

“In workaholic families, there is no tangible cause for the confusion, guilt and inadequacy,” writes the author. And so, the child concludes, “something must be wrong with me,” he added. Furthermore, adult children of work addicts tend to grow up “self-critical, depression-prone, overly serious, angry, and unsuccessful in their adult intimate relationships.”

Finding a Cure
Support and treatments do exist for those prepared to accept them. Mr. Robinson encourages family members to “identify and express their feelings about their problems, refrain from making alibis for the workaholic family member’s absenteeism or lateness at social functions, let their loved one be responsible for explanations, and refrain from assuming the workaholic’s household duties.”

Workaholics Anonymous has nationwide chapters and regular meetings. The organization operates a 12-step program, which serves to heal compulsive work habits and develop a more well balanced, fulfilling lifestyle.

Of course, the challenge in overcoming this destructive illness begins with the workaholic. According to Mr. Robinson, clinicians can help workaholics to set limits on their work patterns, refrain from unrealistic deadlines, explore the reasons why asking for help is difficult, set aside daily personal time, and generally take work more lightly and play more seriously to help restore their work-life balance.

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  1. Man Versus Machine « Jerk Ethic says:

    [...] or people who dedicate more than forty hours a week to their job. Technically it’s defined as “an obsessive compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an [...]

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