Workaholism in a 21st Century Context

Japanese society wrings its hands over karoshi, a work ethic so dangerous, it literally kills or permanently incapacitates affected office workers. They fall victim to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, strokes, and other deadly diagnoses – and all because these devoted employees grow addicted to their jobs. Sometimes this happens to fulfill some unfulfilled inner need. Sometimes this happens because they fear getting laid off and fired, unable to care for themselves and their families. But the tragic risks remain the same.

An identical phenomenon devastates American workers as well. We just don’t dedicate a specific word to it.

In fact, we actively celebrate work addiction, touting it as virtuous rather than murderous. We sarcastically refer to it as “workaholism,” chuckling at the notion that the psychology community wants to stigmatize and pathologize hard work and dedication to one’s career. But workaholism is just as dangerous an addiction as drugs and alcohol, laden with mental and physical torments. It costs companies an estimated $160 billion annually, thanks to medical expenses and absenteeism.

Workaholism heavily involves intrinsic psychological factors, just like any other addiction. However, contemporary American culture, especially in the corporate sector, worsens the issue. With downsizing and layoffs a constant threat since the 2008 economic collapse, many employees fall prey to workaholism because they do not want to lose their livelihood. Heightened expectations and the fact that the average number of hours worked per week has risen by 53% since 1975 all externally pique internal insecurities.

Corporate culture’s over-reliance on technology also enables unhealthy work habits. Not only are many workaholics now burdened with the responsibilities of two or more employees, their companies want them to remain in constant communication. Smartphones, email, and text messages mean they can no longer drop out and decompress, since their manager might very well demand an answer during family dinnertime.

“It’s important to emphasize that there is no real diagnosis of workaholism,” says Dr. Simon Rego, Director of Psychology Training at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Although not yet recognized by the American Psychological Association and outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), workaholism nevertheless requires attention from psychological professionals, corporations, coworkers, and families. Its impact is clear, and its solution is concrete. Learning how to “stop the glorification of busy” in our offices and our homes leads us to start saving lives.

According to Forbes, America’s hardest working cities are as follows:

1. Columbia, Missouri

2. Hartford, Connecticut

3. Norfolk, Virginia

4. Bloomington, Indiana

5. Tuscaloosa, Alabama

6. Gainesville, Florida

7. Las Cruces, New Mexico

8. Newark, New Jersey

9. Lansing, Michigan

10. Bridgeport, Connecticut

Hard Work vs. Workaholism

“A workaholic is on the ski lift thinking about being back in the office. A hard worker is in the office thinking about being on the ski lift,” explains Dr. Bryan Robinson, the psychotherapist behind Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, which will see a third edition later this year.

Hard work is healthy. It yields productive results and pushes humanity further. It raises challenges and pursues realistic, tangible goals. Workaholism is none of these things. It is a dangerous pathology. It ingrains itself in the psyche and dissolves it from the inside out.

Rego admits that the distinction between the two sometimes distorts: “The line is not always so clear between hard worker and workaholic. It may be best to consider these two labels as points along a continuum, with hard worker being a notch down from workaholic on the one end, and most people moving back and forth along the continuum, to some degree, at different points in their lives or in different aspects of their lives.”

Unfortunately, American vernacular tends to conflate “hard work” and “workaholic,” thereby compromising the medical severity of the latter. We celebrate the disorder while simultaneously treating substance abuse – which erupts from the very same psychological milieu – with sympathy and concern. And unlike substance abuse, we actively reward workaholics for their dysfunctional behavior.

The Culture of Workaholism

It is easy to foist historical blame onto the sort of devoted, driven work habits outlined in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Robinson cautions against considering American culture’s roots in the “Protestant work ethic” the workaholism epidemic’s origin story.

“That Puritan work ethic is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, but anything carried too far is a bad thing, and that’s what addiction is … It’s a personality thing,” Robinson says.

Workaholism is a psychological condition often involving the exact same emotions and motivations as more stereotypical addictions, like sex, drugs, and alcohol. But it goes unaddressed at the cultural level because the mechanisms through which the dysfunctions manifest are the cultural level. We chose the form of the destroyer, and it is us.

Corporate Culture

Because the threat of downsizing and layoffs consistently plagues today’s workers, many feel compelled to bury themselves in an avalanche of responsibilities. They want employees to think them valuable assets to the team, and assume unrealistic workloads as a sort of insurance policy; nobody wants to lay off a real go-getter, they think. An almost fanatical devotion to the office, in their minds, increases their chances of receiving validation in the form of raises and promotions.

Corporate culture doesn’t directly cause workaholism any more than video games directly cause school shootings or heavy metal directly causes suicide. But it exacerbates anxieties already intrinsic to a workaholic.

For example, Sheryl Steinberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead coats her pro-workaholism message in feminist rhetoric. She touts psychological dysfunction as inherently empowering to a traditionally marginalized demographic, the key to decimating the glass ceiling. As Kate Lossee at Dissent reports, “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster. The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.”

Rego agrees that societal factors feed into workaholism, providing patients with the resources necessary to enmesh themselves in dangerous behavior cycles. “Being more of an individualist society, America culture tends to reward those who adopt a ‘workaholic’ behavioral style,” he says. “In addition, the population is constantly bombarded with messages about all the rewards that come to those who work hard – such as money, fame, and power. We are told this by our parents and teachers. We see examples of this in our athletes, actors, and corporate leaders. We observe this in our peers, colleagues and friends.”


Prolific and rapid technological innovation is a uniquely 21st century factor in breeding workaholics. We exist almost as veritable “cyborgs” because we rely so heavily on personal devices and tools such as tablets, smartphones, e-mail, text messaging, and laptops to navigate daily tasks.

This does not bode well for American workaholics.

“The advent of technology has also made [enabling] more complicated. Certain corporations expect people to be on call 24/7,” says Robinson. But by ramping up what they want out of their employees, these companies only foster exhaustion rather than productivity.

Chained to the Desk relays the story of actress, producer, and Big director Penny Marshall’s struggles with tech-enabled workaholism, extracted from a People interview. She took advantage of her Blackberry as a tool for justifying unhealthy work habits. Constant connectivity led Marshall to believe that she needed to always stay on top of professional discussions, lest she appear disinterested or lazy. This led to major rifts with her family, who viewed themselves as lesser priorities.

Technology might worsen the quality of life for many workaholics, but they must empower themselves if they hope to break negative patterns. Robinson extols “personal responsibility” as the only antidote for this particular symptom. Workaholics need to determine their technology limits and stick with them.

And if they can’t, they should pursue therapy.

But it’s going to require more than just workaholics setting down their iPhones and signing up for counseling to resolve the issue. Companies themselves need to get involved. The very structure of American culture needs deconstructing and reconstructing over time as well.

“Corporate America merely reflects the values of American society. So, to effect change, the American culture as a whole would have to change,” says Rego.

How Corporate Culture Needs to Change

If corporate culture continues cheerleading workaholic dysfunction as a positive employee characteristic, it will eventually fail. It sabotages itself through counterintuitive practices. Forcing disproportionately high workloads onto employees does not save money – in fact, it causes their bank accounts to hemorrhage money. The $160 billion workaholism that costs companies, individuals, and taxpayers happens because the corporate climate explicitly encourages its psychologically struggling workers; rather than profiting, they push employees towards an American karoshi. For want of money and status, lives are compromised, even lost, to heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, strokes, fatigue, and other ills that could’ve been prevented.

“What we really know is the opposite of what a lot of corporations think: the more balanced people are and the less they feel pressure, the better workers they’re going to be,” Robinson explains.

Both Robinson and Rego note that some companies do understand the science underlining how unhealthy business practices lead to unhealthy employees and heightened absentee rates. Rego says, “Interestingly, we may be seeing some signs of [change], but paradoxically, through corporations experimenting with new and novel ways to enhance productivity, morale, creativity, and motivation.”

Google and AOL/Huffington Post, for example, know that kindergartners shouldn’t monopolize the simple joy of naptime. They help employees stave off burnout by providing nap rooms and pods. Meditation and yoga classes – embraced by the likes of Google, General Mills, and Apple – serve as islands of calm and mindfulness during overwhelming work days.

“This is a change of tide from what we used to call ‘corporate abuse,'” says Robinson.

An estimated $34.3 billion in vacation days went to waste in 2011 thanks to corporate pressures. Americans leave behind an average of 6.2 vacation days at the end of each year. Employees dread the inevitable cavalcade of responsibilities awaiting them upon their return, so they avoid leaving; this only increases their risk of succumbing to workaholism.

Companies might want to harness the desire to enjoy genuine respite as a possible reward. Synygy recognizes hard work and loyalty with additional paid vacation days, even straight-up paid vacations. When considering this route, employers should ensure their workers do not find themselves greeted by overloaded inboxes and to-do lists. And never, ever call or e-mail them while they’re gone, except in the case of the most dire emergencies.

How Workaholism Develops

Workaholics are addicts.

The only difference between a workaholic and a heroin junkie is that cultural mores don’t celebrate shooting up. Workaholics hide behind socially-sanctioned behaviors in order to break themselves down, relying on their employers’ and loved ones’ inability to distinguish the difference between working hard and self-destruction. Nobody notices them the way they notice alcoholics and drug addicts.

“I think most of [workaholism] is brought to the table … when I interview workaholics, they almost always come from some kind of family pattern early on that breeds their need to be busy … or to be achieving,” says Robinson.

Most of his workaholic patients grew up around addicted family members, some of them workaholics themselves. They observe the concept of self-medicating and internalize it as a completely legitimate response to depression, anxiety, insecurity, and other negative thoughts. But there is a physiological component to why workaholism continues as well.

“What [workaholism] does is it activates the stress response,” he says. “[Workaholics] tend to impose upon themselves more expectations than the actual situation requires, and sometimes that turns into workaholism or overdoing it or overcaring or going over the line.”

Rather than smoking, snorting, or shooting, workaholics by definition literally get high on life. Their dysfunctional habits “activate” the sympathetic nervous system rather than the parasympathetic. The stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine flood the brain in periods of elevated stress. Workaholics deliberately create or enter into situations that pique the production of these chemicals, hooking themselves on the resultant mental and physical feelings.

Like other addicts, workaholics usually fall victim to their hurtful habits to compensate for another disorder. Because there is no official diagnosis of “workaholism,” patients receive a different designation when they seek treatment.

Mental Conditions

Workaholics largely contend with anxiety and depressive disorders. Addiction provides short-term comfort for long-term battles against hopelessness, panic attacks, sleeplessness, irritability, apathy, and other chronic symptoms. They become trapped in a vicious catch-22. Behaviors meant to alleviate the pain only aggravates it over time; workaholics start stacking on more and more responsibilities with the earnest hope that overwhelming negativity will slowly turn positive.

Robinson notes an especially significant overlap between workaholism and obsessive-compulsive disorder: “Someone who is obsessive-compulsive will often use work as a way to inflate their anxiety. Not on a conscious level, but a lot of people who have OCD often use the work … as a way to self-medicate,” he says.

As a process addiction, it makes sense that obsessive-compulsive patients succumb to workaholic tendencies. They find the regular rhythm of work habits familiar and soothing.

“Because we give people credit if they’re churning out a lot of projects … we don’t think about what it’s doing to them. We just see the surface of it,” he cautions. Regardless of whether or not workaholism manifests from depression, anxiety, OCD, or another disorder, it still places victims at considerable risk of physical ailments as well.

Physical Conditions

American English may not have an equivalent word to karoshi, but that doesn’t mean the United States does not suffer from the concept’s ill effects. Heart disease kills one out of every four citizens annually. Type 2 diabetes impacts 25.8 million citizens, which is 8.3% of the population. Strokes claim another one out of every nineteen lives.

If we want to quantify the suffering, we spend $108.9 billion on heart disease, $245 billion on diabetes, and $38.6 billion on strokes. These figures all include research, medication, hospital stays, medical appointments, and workplace productivity.

Workaholism increases the chances an employee will fall victim to one of these wrenching conditions.

“What we know is that people who are workaholics are operating from their stress,” says Robinson. “What that means is there’s the adrenaline rush, there’s norepinephrine and there’s cortisol, and what that does is it creates a reaction that lowers the immune system. So folks are more vulnerable to all kinds of viruses and diseases that get a free pass.”

He notes that many take to consuming excessive carbohydrates to compensate for rapidly depleting energy, which also ups their risk of succumbing to strokes, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

But the physical suffering endured by workaholics isn’t relegated exclusively to terminal tragedies. Symptoms read like the warning labels on prescription bottles: headaches, dizziness, eye strain, acne, irritability, restless sleep, insomnia, allergies, and other issues also torment them at higher rates. All of these override, if not outright negate, the productive spirit workaholics and their enablers believe they possess. Encouraging treatment rather than additional hours under the office’s fluorescent lights saves companies money and – most importantly – employees their lives.

The Treatment Process

Seeking out the most appropriate counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist nearby requires intensive research, but tools such as Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s Find a Therapist ease the search process. Patients with private insurance that covers mental and behavioral health might want to call up possible matches through their providers as well.

All of these resources only list licensed, legitimate psychology professionals. Pick out names specializing in addiction or underlying disorders such as OCD, anxiety, and depression. And do the research. Check for any patient reviews or citations before making a decision.

Because there are variables from workaholic patient to workaholic patient, such as severity, family background, underlying mental health issue, and more, treatment options vary. Some cases might require medication, others cognitive behavior therapy. But there are some commonalities between the different approaches.

“Treatment often has to initially focus on raising awareness of some of the negative consequences of the high standards – in terms of personal relationships, emotional well-being, and/or physical health,” says Rego. “Then, the treatment can shift to focus on helping the person learn to challenge his or her beliefs about what it would mean to lower the standards slightly and both develop and commit to values other than work.”

This sometimes involves helping workaholics create and maintain healthy schedules. Creating boundaries allows them to find satisfaction in hobbies and loved ones rather than slowly orchestrating their own demise.

Workaholics Anonymous chapters operate out of most major American cities. They feature a 12-step treatment structure similar to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, providing viable assistance on its own or as a supplement to professional mental health.

When to Intervene

A workaholic’s self-destruction doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Loved ones and coworkers suffer in the peripheral, and the general rules for properly intervening apply to both demographics.

Robinson advises, “They should intervene whenever it starts to affect their relationship or the work or whatever the nature of their connection is.”

“More and more employers are stepping in because they’re realizing that someone who’s a workaholic, especially if they’re a manager, tend to burn people out underneath them … the outcome is not positive, it’s not quality. So more of that’s happening,” he says.

Workaholics also foster divides within their own families. Spouses and children feel neglected, as if work is a far higher priority than spending time with them.

Forty percent of workaholic marriages end in divorce. The children of workaholics may grow up into workaholics themselves if family members and employers continue positively reinforcing their negative habits.

If informal interventions through talking fail to yield results, companies and families might think about organizing something more formal. This can only be effectively done under the guidance of a licensed, trained mental health professional. Use the tools listed under the previous section to find and contact one who can help out.

“The best workers are the people who work hard, but they also play hard and they have relationships and they have a social life and hobbies,” says Robinson. “Those are the most productive people, not workaholics. They burn out. Their career trajectories are much shorter and their absenteeism rate is much higher.”

Although workaholic behavior is an addiction growing out of other psychological stressors, American culture explicitly aggravates the issue. The very structure of 21st century workplaces must be dismantled and rebuilt into something championing healthy lifestyles rather than Type A neuroses.

“We reward [workaholism] and we laugh about it. We laugh at the idea of work addiction,” he cautions. And, in doing so, we may very well laugh our loved ones and our employees towards a painful, maybe even prolonged, death.