Originally published over three months in 2001, co-founder Carol Cannon provided this in-depth insight into workaholism, which is still a common addressed at The Bridge to Recovery today.

Addicted to Work

Part One

Workaholism is a respectable addiction. Of all the “clean” addictions, it is the most widely acculturated and socially acceptable. Diane Fassel, author of Working Ourselves to Death, describes it as a “progressive, fatal disease which masks as a positive trait in the cultural lore of our nation.” Dr. Bryan Robinson, who is an expert on child and family development, deliberately avoids using the word workaholism in his writings because it has such positive connotations! He chooses instead to employ the term work addiction

Workaholic behavior is highly prized in the corporate setting. Gene, an unmarried entrepreneur, portrays this rather well. The founder of a multi-level marketing firm, he cajoles his sales personnel frequently about making work their highest priority. He insists that their success depends upon making family obligations, personal needs, and even social appropriateness secondary to volume of sales. His recruits are expected to view every human contact as a potential customer or downline marketing prospect. There is no room in their lives for relaxed or casual social exchange. They must be on the alert at all times for an opportunity to pitch their product. 

I hesitate to mention this, but I’ve known zealous Christians who have “pitched” the gospel in much the same entrepreneurial manner, with little notion of how offensive or invasive their behavior might be. I am one of them. Balance in these matters is essential, but it is not always easy to achieve, especially when one’s behavior is rooted in unconscious drivenness. 

This points up an important indicator of work addiction: relationships are secondary to results. Productivity is valued more than people are. The “numbers” are the bottom line.

Karl, the junior partner in a legal firm, is a classic example. His watchwords are prestige and success. Impulsive, impatient, ambitious, Karl’s spirit is never at rest. His wife Janine feels a growing sense of desolation. Her husband’s overdriven striving seems so right. She knows he’s doing it for her sake and for the sake of the children. But Janine is not concerned about their material security. She is concerned about the fact that they are being impoverished emotionally. 

Aware that Karl’s overworking was compromising his health and his family’s well-being, his colleague Scott decided to level with him. When Scott mentioned his concerns, Karl laughed them off. “Me, a workaholic? I’m not a workaholic. I LOVE my work!” 

Alcoholics love their booze too, but that doesn’t mean they’re not alcoholics. 

This particular rationalization is often unrecognized for what it is, even among mental health professionals. Many still cannot distinguish between a healthy relationship to work and work addiction. In her survival guide for the families of workaholics, Dr. Barbara Killinger discusses what she believes workaholism is not: “Work is essential for our well-being. Through work we define ourselves…. When we lose a job or cannot work for whatever reason, our personalities suffer profound emotional disorganization and disturbance.” Frankly, I consider this a statement of what workaholism is rather than of what it is not! 

Here are the hallmarks of workaholism: 

  1. Making work one’s highest priority.
  2. Allowing it to become one’s sole source of meaning, identity and value. 
  3. Overworking to one’s own detriment or to the detriment of those closest to oneself.
  4. Persisting in a pattern of excessive overworking in spite of negative consequences. Workaholism, like any other addiction, has profound physical, psychological, social, and spiritual implications. 

Admittedly, most successful businesses and many effective social movements of the past century were established and nurtured by workaholics. That, however, doesn’t make workaholism 0K. In spite of what compulsive overworkers may accomplish, we have to ask this question: 

“At what cost to their health and the well-being of their families?” 

Part Two

Louisa Alonzo, a church administrator, works at a demon pace, driven by a profound sense of urgency. “I know I’m placing myself at risk for burn-out,” she says. “I recognize that overworking is affecting my health and my family’s well-being. But I can’t stop. Deep down inside, I think I was destined to be a martyr.” Louisa’s belief is not unlike that of many youthful drug addicts who say they have always felt predestined to die young! 

Many people find the difference between being a good worker and a workaholic unclear.

They assume that workaholism is about working too long, too hard, or too much. The fact is that some workaholics work too much and others don’t. Some work long hours. Some work short hours. Some binge for a week and then sit and stare for days. Some have several jobs. Others are unemployed. Taken alone, excessive overwork may or may not indicate addiction.

Another common misconception that contributes to confusion about workaholism is the notion that addiction is diagnosable on the basis of how much a person drinks or drugs, how often he gets high, whether or not she drinks alone, etc. This is not the case. A diagnosis of alcoholism, drug addiction, or workaholism must be made on the basis of 

  1. Why a person drinks, drugs, or overworks. 
  2. Whether or not the person can control the behavior.
  3. Whether or not the person continues to use the substance, activity, or process in the face of negative consequences. 

Denise has never been labeled a workaholic because most of her overworking occurs within the confines of her mind. She discusses projects and plans with colleagues in her head when she’s lying in bed at night. She sets up goals for the day while she’s out jogging in the morning. Ninety-nine percent of the time, Denise’s mind is focused on work. Is she a workaholic? 

According to Diane Fassel, author of Working Ourselves to Death, work addiction is actually an identity issue. Workaholics’ vocations become their sole source of meaning and value, whether they are working in an office or a factory, whether they’re highly paid, working for minimum wage, or serving as a volunteer. 

Workaholism is about lack of identity and self-esteem, not about a shortage of time or money.

In terms of loss of control, once an addict starts “using,” it is impossible to predict where the binge will end, how long it will last, or what the impact will be. Workaholics are notorious for pulling all-nighters. Randy, vice-president of marketing for a large advertising firm, decided to catch up on his backlogged work one weekend when his wife and children were away. “I figured I could work ten hours, sleep two, work ten more, sleep two, and no one would accuse me of neglecting them because they wouldn’t even know what I was doing.” Randy attempted to hide his workaholic behavior just like an alcoholic hides his booze. But his plan failed. On the way home from his marathon weekend at the office, he wrecked his sports car. For all practical purposes, Randy was driving drunk. 

Social drinkers and moderate workers stop “overdoing it” when faced with negative consequences. They recognize the cause-to-effect nature of their behavior and choose to abstain. But when workaholics experience negative 

consequences, they ignore them in order to continue acting excessively. Alcoholics and work addicts cannot abstain. 

Perfectionism and aggressive instincts drive work addicts to turn play into work. Says Dr. Barbara Killinger, author of Workaholics—The Respectable Addicts, workaholics “must master the game, accomplish some task, or reach some goal or desired score. Pleasure for its own sake is alien to their thinking.” They sneak projects into their luggage when going on vacation. They maintain contact with colleagues and customers via cell phones or email. They design activity-dense itineraries that provide little or no time for relaxation. “Vacations were a nightmare,” says Jason, the thirty-year-old son of a workaholic. “The whole family was miserable. Dad’s agenda was all that mattered. We were driven by his drivenness.” And this is only a hint of how much the family is affected by workaholism! 

Part Three

“Work is controllable. Work is predictable. It gives me a sense of mastery, ” says Bill Decker, a sixth-grade teacher. “I make it a habit to bring a stack of ungraded papers home from school every night so I can escape to my den with a legitimate excuse. ” 

“When I’m frustrated, I do laundry,” says Roz Amos, a systems analyst. “It seems like I’m ironing out my problems, smoothing out my mental wrinkles. ” Roz’s friend Leslie copes in a similar way. In moments of crisis, she cleans closets. “When the circumstances in my life start to feel crazy and out- of-control, I organize closet shelves. Being able to control something makes me feel better. ” 

Are these behaviors simply healthy coping mechanisms or are they symptoms of work addiction? Ironing and cleaning closets are not bad behaviors. Chopping wood, gardening, running, and other physical activities are healthy. In many cases, activity is a functional coping skill. Even twelve-step groups like Alanon suggest that, in times of crisis, one should do the next right thing. 

So, we ask, which, if any, of the above individuals is a workaholic? For people who identify with Leslie, Bill, or Roz, here are some questions to consider: 

  1. Is my coping mechanism a means to an end or has it become an end in itself?
  2. Does it have a negative impact on my health and well-being or the health and well-being of my family?
  3. What percentage of my time do I spending doing it? Note that the issue here is balance and moderation—the trend, not the clock time!
  4. To what extent am I deriving my sense of worth and identity from the behavior?
  5. Do I have a physical or emotional hangover or any other negative consequence when I do it? 

Once Leslie achieves the satisfaction of completing her task, she is no longer motivated to address the issues that drove her to such frenetic activity in the first place. She is using projects to avoid feelings rather than facing issues of unmanageability in her life. 

By way of contrast, Roz is also calming herself when she irons methodically. She’s taking a “time-out.” But she deals with her difficulties as soon as she has gained perspective. She doesn’t settle for the temporary relief that comes from accomplishing something. She doesn’t stop with ironing. When the laundry is finished, she calls her sponsor, goes to a twelve-step meeting, or talks to a friend, pastor, or therapist and then responds to the troubling situation appropriately. 

If there is a hard-core workaholic in this group, it’s probably Bill. His work has become an end in itself. He’s hiding from his problems and his life—and his family responsibilities—when he escapes to the den. And he openly acknowledges that he’s using schoolwork as an excuse! No doubt Bill is a genuinely dedicated teacher. But his addiction to work has affected his social and emotional health and that of his family. 

Unfortunately, research shows that children of workaholics can suffer the same kinds of problems that have previously been reported for children of alcoholics—depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorders.

So, Bill’s family is hurting. They’re worried about how exhausted and irritable Bill has become. He himself has noticed that he’s having difficulty concentrating. And he feels detached from his family, unable to connect. He doesn’t realize that these problems are manifestations of workaholic hangovers. When Bill’s wife mentions how concerned she is about him, he gets extremely defensive, which is another indication that he is becoming addicted. 

Intervening in a case of workaholism can be as challenging as intervening in a 

case of alcoholism.

Current Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with workaholism, The Bridge to Recovery offers intensive residential workshops that can help. Call us today at 877-866-8661 to learn more.

Carol Cannon, Co-Founder of The Bridge to Recovery


• Originally published in Signs of the Times 

www.pacificpress.com/signs • October, November, December 2001