Are You a Workaholic?

You might as well face it -- you’re addicted to work. Could your workaholism be hurting you?

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 29, 2010
6 min read

On the seventh day, even God rested.

But for workaholics, the day of rest never comes. There is always one more email to read, one more phone call to take, one more critically important trip to the office that can't wait until Monday.

Weekends? Holidays? Family? As the uber-workaholic Ebenezer Scrooge put it, "Bah, humbug!"

"It used to be that I never went on vacation without my laptop and a couple of beepers," says George Giokas, who describes himself as a "reformed" workaholic. When he was starting his company, StaffWriters Plus, in the pre-BlackBerry mid-1990s, Giokas spent more than a few late nights and nearly every Saturday at the office, he tells WebMD.

As he confessed to the online edition of Business Week in 1999, "I've struggled with the weekend issue many times, trying to figure out why I absolutely have to work then. It must be ingrained in me to the point of being a kind of addiction -- like going to the health club every day. If I miss one day, I feel awful."

But Giokas has since learned that the problems that pop up when he's away from the office will still be there when he gets back, and that what happens in the office stays in the office.

"I'm not the sort of person to bring home problems," he says, "and I don't dwell on issues. I get a pretty good night's sleep."

Not every workaholic, however, is able to achieve the balance that Giokas has found.

Justin Blanton, who practices law in California's Silicon Valley, tells WebMD that he is a workaholic and that the problem has only gotten worse in the four years since he wrote the following on his blog:

"Whether I'm reading a Harry Potter book on my PDA while waiting in the deli line, checking email on my phone as soon as my date makes for the ladies room, or heading back to my computer each commercial break (no TiVo… yet) -- I'm always checking something."

"It's gotten worse in the sense that it hasn't let up at all, and I feel more compelled to be busy," Blanton says today.

In a culture that prizes work ethic, overachievement, and financial success -- where gazillionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are household names, and Donald Trump has his own television show -- people who are addicted to working are seen by outsiders as smart, ambitious, and entrepreneurial.

"The system is almost built to reinforce workaholics," says Simon A. Rego, PsyD, associate director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "Those are the people who end up getting positive job evaluations, get opportunities for promotion, and see themselves getting bonuses or raises. It's almost like the system has a built-in model to give them free hits of what they're addicted to."

Even when out of the office, workaholics can satisfy their cravings with cell phones, PDAs, laptops, and WiFi, which ensure that work need never be out of reach.

But blaming technology for workaholism is like blaming the supermarket for food addiction or the corner liquor store for alcoholism, says Bryan E. Robinson, PhD, author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them.

Robinson and other clinicians who treat patients for work-associated stress say that working hard and having easy access to work does not automatically make someone a workaholic.

"It's important to understand the context," says Edmund Neuhaus, PhD, director of the Behavioral Health Partial Hospital Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "If you're working to the exclusion of your family, your marriage, other relationships, and your life is out of balance, or your physical health is out of balance -- when work takes an exclusive priority to everything else, that's the more extreme end of the spectrum where it becomes a problem," Neuhaus tells WebMD.

"The preoccupation with work is really at the core of what workaholism is," says Robinson, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and a psychotherapist in private practice in Asheville, N.C. "I always say that the difference between someone who's a true workaholic and someone who's just a hard worker is that the workaholic is on the ski slopes dreaming about being back at work, and the hard worker is in the office dreaming about being on the ski slope."

Workaholism is remarkably similar to alcoholism in some ways. Just as an alcoholic will hide bottles around the house and drink furtively, for example, workaholics may try to sneak in work when they think no one is looking.

"It's something that I did in the throes of my own work addiction, and when I think about it now it sounds pretty sick," Robinson says. He once hid some work papers in his jeans after his family went through his suitcase looking for his secret stash while packing for a trip to the beach, he tells WebMD.

Other key signs of workaholism are:

  • Trouble delegating work (workaholics tend to be control freaks and micro-managers)
  • Neglecting other aspects of one's nonworking life (like the dad who never has time to attend Junior's school play)
  • Incorporating other aspects of life into work (such as trying to turn a hobby into a new business)

A workaholic might seem to be every CEO's dream: an employee who comes in early, stays late, doesn't take vacations, and takes on mountains of work. But those very qualities may make the workaholic a poor candidate for employee of the month because they often have more work than they can handle effectively, don't delegate, aren't team players, and are often more disorganized than their less compulsive colleagues, Robinson says.

In addition, workaholics may refuse to take time off, even when their work performance is affected -- although here cultural expectations and financial realities may come into play.

"People are afraid to take vacations because they're afraid that with all the downsizing and the economy being what it is that they'd be the first to go," Robinson says.

"I train residents at McLean Hospital," Neuhaus says, "and I tell them, 'You have to take vacations. Go away. You're not going to be any good to me if you don't take vacations.'"

Like other forms of addiction, workaholism can have significant health consequences, experts say, including significantly higher work-related stress and job burn-out rates, anger, depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches.

Despite the symptoms, workaholics may be in deep denial about their addiction, like a severely emaciated teen with anorexia who looks in the mirror and sees herself as obese.

Montefiore's Rego tells WebMD that workaholics often need prodding from family and friends to seek help when "the seesaw of life is tilted too much toward work."

One highly effective treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy focused on identifying and modifying negative thoughts and thought patterns.

"The workaholic might have a set of beliefs about the value of work which are misguided," Rego says. "And if you can intervene cognitively -- not to correct or get rid of them, but just make them a little more rational -- you might see a change in the behavior and consequent stress reaction."

Robinson helps workaholics develop a self-care plan examining five aspects of their lives: work, relationships, play, self, and spiritual life.

"This helps them see in black and white where their lives are lacking," Robinson says.

He also helps patients understand that they don't have to go cold turkey or quit their jobs, but find a balance in their lives and identify what's most important to them, whether it's family, friendships, religion, or beliefs.

Workaholics Anonymous, a national support group modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, publishes on its web site a list of questions that can help you determine whether you are a certified workaholic or just unusually diligent. Positive answers to three or more of the questions may signal the need for help. The group hosts meetings around the country where people with similar problems can share ideas anonymously and provide support and solutions that will help them balance their lives.