It’s worth talking about.
Despite its etymological relationship to “alcoholic,” the word “workaholic” has almost pride-inducing connotations. An absurdly large number of us are proud to be workaholics. We put it on our resumes. We encourage it in our children. We cite it as the source of our success.
And we absolutely do not see the connection between this behavior and the mass burnout of an entire working generation.
This is why, when talking about my own struggles with overwork, I generally prefer the term “work addiction” to “workaholism.” I don’t want anyone thinking that my lifelong battle is in any way commendable or worth emulating.
Because it’s nearly killed me. Twice.
Workaholism: It’s Not a Party
The first time was in my late 20s, when I was trying to hold down a grueling law firm job with absolutely zero support in any area of my life. Less than zero support: the two people who were nominally “on my side” were incredibly high-maintenance emotional relationships. When the bottom finally did fall out of my life, their only concern was that I might no longer be there for them.
I did three separate stays in the hospital in 2009, ranging from three to seven days apiece.
I quit the law firm job, but I did not quit working. Oh no. I started freelancing.
Freelancing: The Work Addict’s Meth
The big problem with freelancing is that the ability to work anywhere at anytime quickly turns into the obsession that one should be working everywhere all the time. It sounds like paradise for the work-addicted, but it’s incredibly dangerous.
And being able to work everywhere all the time was, somehow…still not enough.
I went to graduate school. I took a teaching assistantship in addition to being a full-time grad student. I started a winterguard program at a school that was an hour’s drive from my house. I joined a fledgling small press.
At age 33, I was in the hospital again.
“How would you describe your problem?” the doctors asked me.
“My problem is that I have four jobs and I need to only have three jobs,” I said.
…The look the doctors gave one another was my first inkling that maybe, just maybe, I had a problem.
Billions of people work every day, but not everyone develops an addiction.
There aren’t good worldwide numbers for work addiction, but it appears to range near 10 percent of the working population in most Western nations. One study from Spain found that about 12 percent of the population met the criteria for work addiction. About half of USians consider themselves “workaholics.”
Not all “workaholics” are necessarily work-addicted. Dr. Mark Griffiths has argued that a behavior shouldn’t be characterized as an addiction until it meets six specific criteria:
- salience (it’s the most important thing in your life),
- mood modification (it produces a “buzz,” “high” or allays negative feelings like anxiety),
- tolerance (you need to do more and more of the thing to get the same mood-modifying effects),
- withdrawal (not doing the thing produces severe negative symptoms),
- conflict (doing the thing causes problems with personal relationships, gets in the way of other beneficial life activities, or causes intrapersonal concerns)
- relapse (left to your own devices, there’s a substantial chance you will do the thing again).
I’ve been 6 for 6 basically since I started middle school.
So if workaholism is “doing a lot of work,” work addiction is “I can’t not do the work.”
One of the things that landed me in the hospital the second time, in fact, was that I couldn’t decide which of the four jobs I should quit. It wasn’t just that they all had pros and cons; it was that even thinking about thinking about which to quit caused me so much angst that I simply shut down.
“I should think about quitting one of these jobs,” I’d say to myself.
*BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH*, my brain would reply.
Work addiction occurs when work-centric behavior becomes compulsive. Work begins to feel necessary for survival. Not in the “I need money to eat” way, but in the “if I’m not focused on this project then the tigers will eat me and I will cease to exist forever” way.
Often, work addiction is driven by an underlying issue (or several) that work becomes a means to avoid. It’s more common, for example, in people who are carrying unresolved trauma, either from a single source (like a car accident) or a series of accumulated sources (childhood abuse or bullying, relationship abuse). Work addiction can be the manifestation of a condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder or mania as well.
In my case, work is a way to avoid dealing with a lifetime of abuse, with chronic pain, and with several other things I just plain don’t want to look at. If given the chance, I will literally work myself to death rather than face those demons.
I tried. Twice. Before age 33.
Good Job Not Dying?
Work addiction differs from certain other types of addictions, like alcohol or gambling, because we typically need to work in order to survive. Humans can thrive without ever taking a sip of booze or placing a bet, but we don’t do as well without working. Work is a common, typical, necessary and even healthy human behavior…usually.
So the challenge for me wasn’t to go “cold turkey” from work. It was to figure out how to contextualize work in a way that would also allow me to survive.
For me, that looked like:
Setting boundaries around work time.
“Work time” is now 8 am to 12 am, four days a week. (The 8-12 am slot on Wednesdays is housecleaning time.) I get 16 hours a week to get all my paying work done. That’s it.
As a freelancer, this was an option for me, but it also required me to radically rethink the types of projects and clients I accepted. With only 16 hours a week to do the work and a minimum gross income requirement around $40,000 per year, I can’t take things that pay a penny or two per word. I have to aim higher; I have to brand myself better.
Having to limit my work time forced me to reconceptualize my work content, which in turn changed my approach to work. It’s now a puzzle I only get to solve at certain times of the week. It’s recharged the joy I once found in working and sharply reduced the tolerance load.
Therapy and self-awareness.
I had started therapy about two years before the second hospitalization in 2015. During and after that hospital stay, however, I renewed my commitment to working on the terror of not-working and the reasons behind it.
My reasons are complex and long-lasting. They were baked in during my formative years, so I don’t have a “before” to serve as a benchmark. But digging through them has made work and not-work easier, and it’s helped reduce my risk of relapse over time.
I do lapse. I haven’t wound up all the way back in the work addiction hole, but I do catch myself perseverating over tasks from time to time. While my recent KonMari adventure has been enormously productive both for the organization of my household and for my psyche, there were phases that started to feel very much like my work addiction had. It’s the reason I’ve had to finish the process over time (and why the final blog post in the series has yet to be written).
During the second hospitalization, much of my work with my psychologist centered around “doing nothing.” We talked about the life-threatening terror that phrase struck in me. We talked about my absolute aversion to the concept and my intense self-loathing at imagining myself doing nothing.
And then I got ordered to do it.
I made a list of activities that, in my mind, constituted the dreaded “doing nothing.” They were amazingly innocuous.
Reading novels. Taking a walk for the sake of walking (not to run an errand). Playing video games. Scrolling through Facebook. Watching Netflix.
They were, in essence, the kind of things that other people look at and say, “If that’s your definition of doing nothing, then I’m the laziest slug on the planet!”
You’re not, of course; it’s that my sense of what counted as “things I have a right to be doing and still be breathing air and eating food” is pretty damn inside-out.
I was required to schedule two hours a day to “do nothing.” Those two hours had to be at a time I’d normally be awake, and they had to be spent doing something on my list of activities that constituted “doing nothing.”
…At first, I fudged this more than a little. I spent that time reading manuscripts (hey, it’s fiction, right?) or told myself that going for a walk would also count as my exercise time, so it was therefore “productive.” But as a rule, I did a pretty good job of avoiding paid work during this daily two-hour time slot.
Doing nothing has gotten easier since I started. It’s still not easy; it probably never will be. But I appreciate it more now that I see the profound effect it’s had on the quality of my work at other times of the day.
Tl;dr Work addiction is a thing. It sucks. It requires some long-term management and confrontation of some pretty terrible demons. But that effort is surprisingly non-fatal.