Workaholism is an addiction, too

May 13, 2009 by  
Filed under ADDICTION

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paper-workThere is an addiction that is considered to be “acceptable”, even “respectable.” But it is nonetheless can be just as detrimental to your health as other less acceptable addictions. I am referring to workaholism, the so-called “respectable addiction.” 

What is the difference between a workaholic and a hard worker?

According to Dr. Bryan Robinson, author and expert on workaholism (source: WebMD):

“Hard work put us on the moon and discovered vaccinations and built this country… But hard workers generally have some balance in their lives. They sit at their desks and think about skiing. The workaholic is on the ski slopes thinking about work.”

Workaholism is an all-consuming obsession with work. This obsession prevents the victim (yes, the workaholic is a victim!) from engaging in other interests and hobbies, from building and maintaining relationships, and from taking care of their health.

Unfortunately, respectable this addiction may be, it still comes with health risks. “Workaholism is an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s not the same as working hard or putting in long hours”, according to Dr. Robinson.

What are the biological mechanisms behind workaholism?


Some experts believe workaholics are addicted to the adrenalin rush. Adrenalin, also called epinephrine, is a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It plays a major role during short-term stress situations and has a major evolutionary role – it enables animals to flee from or fight a threatening enemy, thus earning it the name “fligwork-busyht or fight” hormone. In these emergency situations, adrenalin pumps up the supply of oxygen and glucose to the brain and voluntary muscles, increases heart rate but suppresses bodily processes not essential for the emergency. Thus, adrenalin rush on the short-term is advantageous. On the long-term, however, stress hormones like adrenalin can be detrimental to our health.


Is the workplace to blame?

It is not the workplace that causes workaholism; it is the addict who seeks out the environment to feed his or her need for the adrenalin rush. Workaholics tend to seek out jobs that entail high-stress levels to feed their addiction. Companies or employers may either foster or discourage this behaviour.

However, the root cause of this addiction may be traced back to childhood. Just as drug addiction or alcoholism is closely linked to the family environment, so is workaholism. Dr. Robinson explains:

[Workaholics] tend to be products of what I call ‘looking good families’ whose parents tend to be perfectionists and expect unreasonable success from their kids. These children grow up thinking that nothing is ever good enough. Some just throw in the towel, but others say, ‘I’m going to show I’m the best in everything so [my] parents approve of me.'”

Unfortunately, the quest for the ultimate perfection is what makes people susceptible to workaholism as perfection itself is unattainable.

What are the consequences of workaholism?

Consequences on health

Stress. As mentioned before, adrenaline on the long-term is unhealthy. The workaholic is continuously exposed to high levels of stress hormones. Stress has been shown to be factor in the development of chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disorders (e.g. hypertension, heart disease, stroke, etc.) and suppression of the immune system.

Sleep disorders. Workaholics tend to view sleep as an unnecessary interruption of a working day. However, sleep is essential for bodily functions and lack of sleep has been associated with cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer.

Consequences on productivity

All work and no play makes John or Jane an unproductive worker. Even if they work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, workaholics end up ineffective and less productive. In general, workaholics run into problems when

  • working within a team
  • accepting constructive criticism
  • delegating

Dr. Robinson’s research has identified four distinct workaholic “working styles”, namely:


The bulimic workaholic feels the job must be done perfectly or not at all. Bulimic workaholics often can’t get started on projects, and then scramble to paper-chasecomplete it by deadline, often frantically working to the point of exhaustion — with sloppy results.


The relentless workaholic is the adrenaline junkie who often takes on more work than can possibly be done. In an attempt to juggle too many balls, they often work too fast or are too busy for careful, thorough results.

The attention-deficit workaholic often starts with fury, but fails to finish projects — often because they lose interest for another project. They often savor the “brainstorming” aspects but get easily bored with the necessary details or follow-through.

The savoring workaholic is slow, methodical, and overly scrupulous. They often have trouble letting go of projects and don’t work well with others. These are often consummate perfectionists, frequently missing deadlines because “it’s not perfect.”

How to deal with workaholism

Know whether you have a problem. The first step is knowing and accepting that you have a problem. Like most addicts, workaholics are also prone to denial. Take a good look at yourself, your lifestyle and your working habits. Take an anonymous online test to determine whether you are suffering from workaholism.

Seek professional help. Addicts need professional help. It need not be a shrink. Life and career coaches can also give advice on finding life-work balance. Some companies provide coaching services to employees. Coaches may be in-company or external. In most cases, coaches and psychiatrists are required to keep client/patient/employee confidentiality even if the employers pay for their services.

Find a support group. The Workaholics Anonymous is a group where workaholics can run to for support. Many people might find it ridiculous to liken workaholism to alcoholism. However, support groups, no matter how they are called, have always been proven to be effective in providing help, be it in losing weight, recovering from a disease, or fighting addiction.


Workaholism iworks becoming a major concern in today’s lifestyle. In recent years, several idioms have cropped up in relation to workaholism. Just to name a few: chained to the desk, married to his/her job, desk jockeys, death by overwork, leisure illness.

Photo credits: stock.xchng

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.

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