My partner works all the time. Are they addicted to work?
Where is the line between working too much or being addicted to work?
It looks like nowadays almost everybody feels compelled to work long hours at the expense of family time, leisure, sports or proper rest. To become successful, one needs to be prepared to put effort beyond average and sacrifice almost all other aspects of life. But while they stay at work until the wee hours, family life goes on without them, kids grow up and miss their parent, friends stop calling and physical ailments pile up. Their partners feel betrayed, forced to take on the family joys and burdens by themselves, and start complaining, but nothing changes. And they slowly get estranged from each other and the family.
Is that the cost of success, as they try to persuade you, or is it workaholism?
Workaholism is not merely working too much. Addiction to work is a behavioral addiction whereby a person works compulsively and excessively, to the detriment of their health and other pursuits such as family or free time. It can appear in anyone, not only among high earners or those who have a career society views as very important; a workaholic can get caught up in obsessively doing charity work, or even mundane housework. Workaholics have a strong work ethic, are constantly working, and take little time for personal enjoyment. Although they may claim their job demands they work long hours, they actually do so to escape their problems in other areas of their lives. When unable to work, they are apprehensive and restless.
Eventually, their extreme and exaggerated behavior can lead to exhaustion and burnout, leaving them unable to work at all—sometimes for months.
If you accuse your spouse of being a workaholic, you probably don’t mean to accuse them of being an addict—but rather to tell them they need to be more engaged with the family and take on more family obligations. However, I don’t speak lightly about behavioral addictions, but in terms of obsession, loss of control, preoccupation, and continuing despite adverse consequences. Engaging in too much work can be a sign of addiction.
TEST: Typical Behaviors of Workaholics
Constantly working overtime despite health problems, conflicts in the family, and signs that your children are being neglected.
Feeling anxious if you cannot control what is going on at work (e.g., during your vacation time).
Losing your sense of time while working.
Working even when you are sick out of the belief something terrible might happen if you stay at home and rest (e.g., that you’ll be laid off or demoted).
Experiencing rage-fueled outbursts, irritation, sleeplessness, tension, impatience, forgetfulness, problems with concentration, and changing moods if unable to work.
Feeling extremely anxious if you cannot achieve perfectionF at work.
Constantly thinking about what else needs to be done at work.
Burning out and being unable to do any professional work for a long period.
Alternating between working too much and being unable to work at all.
Believing you are irreplaceable in your work role.
Believing work is the most important thing in life.
Losing oneself in working too much
Society values work—and as a result, it respects and appreciates those who work a lot. But some people choose work over themselves, their family, and their friends—not because they have to or want to please an unsupportive boss, but to escape everything they consider wrong with their lives. These aspects of their lives are usually connected to the trauma and abuse they experienced during childhood, and driving themselves to work to exhaustion may be a kind of trauma repetition. They hide their feelings of inadequacy behind the smokescreen of their “busy-busy” persona, but their chaotic and hysterical preoccupation with work reveals their belief that the world requires their superhuman efforts and self-sacrifice.
In reality, their belief that the world would stop turning if they didn’t toil from dawn to dusk is an indicator of their low self-esteem. Although they assign themselves the super-important role of a savior, they actually feel they are not allowed to breathe unless they work twice as much as others. At the same time, they may actually cause drama with their unrealistic planning—for instance, by promising to finish a task in half the necessary time, and then becoming exhausted or making so many mistakes that the job actually takes even longer to be finished.
Workaholism has to do with avoiding emotional closeness, which may trigger painful feelings for the addict. As devoted as they are to resolving problems at work, workaholics are usually passive when it comes to personal relationships—often ignoring them entirely, or at least wishing them away. They’re also ignorant of the potential physical consequences of an imbalance between work and rest. They don’t feel their bodies, and they’re numb to their relationship problems. When they cannot control what is happening at work, they feel lost, disconnected, or in danger. Even on holidays, they need a plan; spontaneity threatens them.
Employers may think a workaholic is a model employee, working until the wee hours of the morning and enjoying it, too. But no! Remember that addicts lose the ability to enjoy things. Instead, workaholics are driven to work by their inner demons. Lack of sleep and chronic stress impair their ability to concentrate. More often than not, they abuse chemical stimulants, starting with coffee and progressing to cocaine and other drugs.
Advice for addicts
On the surface, work addiction seems quite innocent when compared to other substance or behavioral addictions. Still, it brings with it grave consequences: burnout, depression, poor physical health, career and life dissatisfaction, conflicts between one’s work and family, and relationship and marital conflict. If you have found that a couple days off can no longer alleviate your stress, or if your doctor has warned you about developing stress-related diseases, something needs to change.
What should the addict’s family and friends do to help?
Many workaholics hide behind the social, societal, and organizational culture that surrounds us, which glorifies excessive work and competition in the workplace. And as many times as you may tell your workaholic loved one that they should “work to live, not live to work,” they will not hear you. Their “life scripts” have their own logic. If a workaholic stops working, unless they are totally exhausted, they experience profound anxiety. Workaholics have to work to get their inner demons’ permission to live! This is why, as much as you may plead, argue, persuade, or even threaten divorce, none of these efforts will work long-term.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.