The Bad (and a Little Good) News about Workaholism

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
June 05, 2015

Workaholics can feel energized, but health, relationships, and work performance can suffer.

Teruyuki Yamashita kept a grueling schedule as a senior salesman in Tokyo. He made countless international trips and worked late into the night, typically sleeping just three hours before the next work day rolled around. But Yamashita’s busy life came to a sudden halt six years ago when he collapsed with a near-fatal hemorrhagic stroke, a condition blamed on his excessive work-around-the-clock lifestyle.  

Yamashita suffered from an extreme case of workaholism, a term coined by American psychologist Wayne Oates in 1971 that describes an addiction-like need for work.

Being conscientious, enjoying your job, and working extra hours when needed are signs of healthy job engagement. But workaholics are driven to work compulsively. And researchers have found the condition can hurt health, relationships, and even the ability to do topnotch work.

“Similar to other types of addictions, workaholics may feel a fleeting high or a rush when they're at work, but quickly become overwhelmed by feelings of guilt or anxiety," University of Georgia psychologist Malissa Clark, PhD, explained. "Looking at the motivations behind working, workaholics seem pushed to work not because they love it but because they feel internal pressure to work.”  

Some people call workaholism a “positive addiction” because working long hours suggests extra productivity. But when Clark and colleagues analyzed data about workaholics, they found the opposite is true. Although workaholics tend to be perfectionists, the study showed they suffer from burnout, job stress, decreased mental and physical health, and personal conflicts which hamper their work productivity.

In a study of 300 workers, workaholics had more troublesome and work-disrupting physical and mental symptoms — including digestive, memory, and sleep problems — than those who didn’t work compulsively. Workaholics work “hard rather than smart,” concluded Alexander Falco, PhD, who headed the University of Padova research.  

Bryan Robinson, PhD, began studying workaholism because the subject hit close to home — he’s a recovering workaholic.

“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,” said Robinson, a University of North Carolina Charlotte psychotherapist and the author of “Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians who Treat Them” (NYU Press).

“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.”

Are there any advantages to being a workaholic? Yehuda Baruch, a management professor at Rouen Business School in France, thinks so. She presented her case in a research paper on the subject, arguing that workaholics are, in fact, energized by their work and successes. So, unless their long hours are damaging their physical and mental health, workaholics shouldn’t be put in the same category as “problematic addicts,” according to Baruch.

Being a workaholic can result in career success, if workaholics manage to walk the tightrope between high levels of creativity and job satisfaction and equally extreme levels of exhaustion and frustration, according to Florida State University (FSU) researchers. And working for a boss who understands workaholism can be crucial.

Good managers who identify workaholics and give them access to resources at work, including equipment and social support, can help workaholics be successful without burnout, according to a study headed by FSU business administration professor Wayne Hochwarter. “We discovered that workaholics really struggle when they feel that they are alone or swimming upstream without a paddle,” Hochwarter said.

If so, you can take steps to reign yourself in, but you have to be conscious about making the break from your normal working processes.

For one, you can lock your smartphone and laptop in your desk at lunchtime and get out of the office. The same goes for when you head home on Friday.

Prioritize what’s important, such as family, friends, getting home before dark, maybe grabbing some quiet time in a park. Realize your work will still be there tomorrow, but forgetting about what’s really important may mean what’s really important may not be there tomorrow — if you let it slide.

Shorten your to-do list to five or six items; realize how much is reasonable to accomplish during a given day. Add new tasks that come up throughout the day to tomorrow’s list.


April 01, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN