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Work addiction?

How to break free.

Hard work, dedication and drive are celebrated qualities, especially in the workplace. But taken too far, these attributes can transform from well regarded to troublesome.

The fact is that although most people associate addiction with abusing substances such as alcohol, drugs and even gambling, it also can be associated with work. But work addiction isn’t always taken seriously, according to Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., author of A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. A recovering workaholic himself, Robinson decided to write his book because he couldn’t find much literature on the topic.

“People will giggle. They think it’s a joke. It’s never been taken seriously,” he says. His response? “I want to give it a stigma. It needs one so people can see how damaging it can be.”

The makings of a workaholic

Workaholics Anonymous explains in its literature that common characteristics of work addicts include deriving identity and self-esteem from work and overloading their schedules at the cost of their health and relationships.

Jullien Gordon, a speaker, personal coach and author who specializes in helping workaholics overcome their addiction, knows first hand how these elements of the illness can wreak havoc on lives. His marriage almost fell apart because he always put work before his relationships in a quest to make his successful parents proud. He says work addiction stems from a feeling of inadequacy—that you’re not smart enough, good enough or accomplished enough.

“When that feeling arises, we fill the gap by working harder because working hard always looks good in other people’s eyes,” he explains. In short, hard work yields rewards, which in turn encourages more hard work. Hence, a cycle is born.

So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, plenty. The trouble starts when work becomes everything. “Work addiction is really an inability to stop and the belief that more work is going to give you something more. It’s a fantasy, an illusion,” says Robinson, whose experiences both as a workaholic and a psychoanalyst inspired him to write a novel about a workaholic called Limestone Gumption: A Brad Pope and Sisterfriends Mystery.

Instead of filling some deep-seated need, work addiction leaves no room for relationships and other interests. “Work consumes us to the point that relationships take the backseat,” he says.

When family and friends express their concern or disappointment at being neglected, work addicts become good at sneaking in their fix in order to avoid criticism. “It’s the same kind of deceit you see with people who are alcoholics,” notes Robinson. He has worked with patients who’ve gone to great lengths to hide their work from loved ones, including one woman donning workout gear and soaking herself with water to keep up an exercise class alibi so she could stay at her office later.

Beyond relationship trouble, workaholics do measurable damage to their health. When work comes before all else, sleep deprivation, a sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthy diet take their toll on your body.

“High stress is related to cancer, heart attack, stroke and inflammation of different kinds,” explains Robinson. In the worst-case scenario, these can do irreparable harm. The Japanese even have a word for it: “kiroshi,” which means death by overwork.

For people at this level of addiction, it’s critical to get a handle on the problem so they can be healthier—both physically and emotionally—and regain control of their lives.

Overcoming work’s hold

The first step to overcoming work addiction is to recognize the problem. “Identify if you are a workaholic by taking a test (see our quiz) or listening to the people around you,” says Robinson. Often, people don’t realize how severe the situation is until they hit rock bottom, which for some may be a rapid decline in health and for others may be the loss of important relationships. Remember that putting work ahead of relationships is lost time with loved ones that you can’t get back.

“As one shifts from workaholism to high performance, they feel less tired, more confident and more empowered, and they typically rise faster and earn more throughout their careers."
– Jullien Gordon, speaker, personal coach and author who specializes in helping workaholics
overcome their addiction

Recovering from work addiction can be especially challenging, since, as Robinson says, “You can’t stop working like you can stop drinking.” However, there are many resources available to give you hope and help with your efforts.

Workaholics Anonymous offers information on its website to help individuals evaluate their behaviors. They offer a 12-step plan and meetings in cities around the world for those who want the support of others experiencing the same issues.

Those with a less severe degree of work addiction can create a self-care plan with self-help books to guide them, Robinson says. He recommends developing a strategy that addresses boundaries in each of the four quadrants of your life: work, relationships, play and self. “The self would be the things that each of us does,” he says, “eating, sleeping and nutrition.”

This means putting together guidelines around how much work is enough, carving out time to focus on your family and friends, taking time to do things that give you pleasure and making your own health and well-being a priority. Then you need to use your hard work, dedication and drive to stick to them—no matter what.

The root of the obsession

This self-care plan is just the beginning, though. An important part of the recovery process is working to understand what drove you to your obsession in the first place. “Some people can get to this on their own or at a Workaholics Anonymous meeting where they can talk to people who have an awareness about [work addiction],” says Robinson.

He also says books can walk individuals through this process to help them access the parts of themselves that became eclipsed by work. “This helps you see how workaholism has served to assuage pain, hurt and fear, and as you understand it, it motivates you to want to pull back into those aspects you have ignored and let go,” he adds.

This newfound focus can help you be present in all areas of your life instead of just work, which helps create a feeling of equilibrium. “As one shifts from workaholism to high performance, they feel less tired, more confident and more empowered, and they typically rise faster and earn more throughout their careers,” Gordon says.

The dawn of a new life

However, as you rediscover other fulfilling aspects of life, Robinson cautions to be careful not to trade one addiction for another. As he was recovering from his own work addiction, he returned to the love of his youth: fiction writing. He was aware of a tug within himself to latch onto the writing as he did earlier in life when he was addicted to other work. “It’s something you’ve got to pay attention to,” he says, so you don’t slip back into harmful behaviors.

When you’re focusing on living a well-rounded life and can gain a sense of meaning from multiple sources, you regain the health that work addiction robbed from you.

“If we put work in its place, and we don’t associate life success with just career success, we can overcome these [workaholic] tendencies,” says Gordon.

Robinson concludes, “The goal is balance.”