When a passion for work careers into an addiction

For some people work never stops, even if they aren’t physically there. They are workaholics, the people who are mentally at work 24/7, for whom work eclipses everyone and everything else in their lives.
Nanjing Night Net

Kate* sensed she was heading for a personal train wreck. Having landed her dream job in international education administration, she was working around the clock to meet targets, sometimes for three weeks at a stretch without a day off.

“It consumed me,” Kate admits. “I couldn’t stop thinking about work. I’d go to sleep worrying about work, I’d dream about work and I’d wake up thinking about it. Even when I had free time I wasn’t able to be present and available with family and friends. “

Suffering constant headaches and irritable bowel syndrome, the 30-year-old was too exhausted from work to do anything when she did get time off.

Yet still Kate couldn’t help herself. “One time I burst into tears to my partner. I said ‘I’m not a machine. I’m treating myself like a machine.’ He said ‘You need to stop.’ I said ‘I can’t stop. I just need to get over this deadline and then we’ll see’.”

The term workaholism was coined half a century ago by American psychologist Wayne Oates. He defined a workaholic as “a person whose need for work has become so excessive that it creates a noticeable disturbance or interference with his bodily health, personal happiness and interpersonal relations, and with his smooth social functioning.”

Australia is often outed for being a nation of workaholics that belies its laidback image. We’re second only to the Japanese in hoarding annual leave: just half of us take all our holidays compared with a third of workers in Japan according to an international IPSOS poll.

The most recent Australian Work and Life Index found we have higher rates of work intensity than Europeans. Two-fifths of working Australians report that they are working at very high speeds and to tight deadlines three-quarters of their working time: a third believe they have too much work to do for one person.

Yet many workaholics talk about the buzz they get from working – the adrenalin rush of being under intense pressure and having to meet deadlines. Between 8 and 25 per cent of workers identify as workaholics, according to a study recently published in the US Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

But whereas society takes a dim view of the high alcoholics get from drinking, or gamblers get from a punt, workaholism has been called the “respectable addiction”.

“It’s such a rewarded problem,” points out 65- year-old Sydney academic Veronica* who has battled workaholism her entire working life and attends Workaholics Anonymous. “You get prestige, you get money, you get all these strokes for being a workaholic. It’s very hard to see how it can damage yourself and your relationships.”

For every workaholic who craves the sense of achievement work delivers, there is a workaholic driven by insecurity and perfectionism, warns organisational psychologist Leanne Faraday-Brash. “It’s not about getting a reward for effort,” she says. “It’s about trying to stave off fear and anxiety.”

At the extreme end of the workaholism spectrum is what the Japanese call karoshi, or death by overwork. In December 27-year-old advertising copywriter Pradnya Paramita died after tweeting she had worked 30 hours straight at the Jakarta office of Young & Rubicam. In August 21-year-old Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt died of an epileptic seizure in the shower of his London flat after working 72 hours non-stop.

Not all workaholics are corporate high-flyers. WA members include builders, housewives and even an out-of-work busker. They’re plagued by to-do lists, feel lots of people depend on them, and get caught up in the process of working rather than delivering a finished product.

Researching his bookChanging GearsGreg Foyster attended a Workaholics Anonymous meeting in Melbourne and quickly realised he strongly identified with the stories being shared.

“It was a bit of a shock to me,” the 30-year-old recalls. “Everyone had this intense focus on their work; they scheduled all their time, even their days off. They suffered paralysing perfectionism – they couldn’t leave things half-finished but they tried to do too much in a day so they were never going to achieve it all.”

It was all too familiar to Foyster who used to define himself by his advertising career. He was always taking work home, constantly getting sick, and when he wasn’t spending all his waking hours on advertising work, would be reading philosophy as part of his quest for self-improvement.

“I had this philosophy that if you didn’t spend 13 hours a day working or improving yourself in some way, it was time wasted,” Foyster says. “If you’ve worked for a couple of years in a high-stress job working long hours you just get used to that mode of being.” “

Foyster’s girlfriend Sophie finally forced him to abandon the rat race for a simpler life. “I’ve got more out of my relationship than I ever would in any job,” he says.

Workaholics frequently report growing up with absent fathers who worked long hours. Foyster’s own father had a heart attack at 42, which Foyster attributes to stress and overwork.

He vividly remembers his dad catching him lying on his bed reading in year 12. “He said ‘ Why aren’t you working Greg? This is a time of stress’,” Foyster recounts. “I learnt from my dad that work equals stress.”

Veronica attributes her workaholism to growing up with an alcoholic mother. “I felt rather isolated emotionally,” she recalls. “When you’re used to relying on yourself [as a child] you do that in the workplace as an adult. You find it very difficult to ask for support, and you have unrealistic expectations of what you can do.”

Workaholics Anonymous branches exist in cities around the world but workaholism is not officially listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as an addiction. It is instead considered a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. There is debate about whether workaholism is simply pathologising the normal behaviour of working hard.

Faraday-Brash argues that while hard workers “will walk over broken glass to get the job done”, they are able to switch off when they are not at work. This is impossible for workaholics.

“They take work to bed, they find it hard to disengage on holidays; when they’re away from work they’re fretting that they’re not getting stuff done,” Faraday-Brash says. “They start shutting down their feelings altogether. They lose compassion and empathy for other people because it is all about getting the job done.”

The damage workaholism does to personal relationships can reinforce the behaviour. “When they’re very busy at work they neglect other people. Then they go home and get grief which reinforces the idea that work is a bit of a haven from personal conflicts,” Faraday-Brash says.

Veronica believes her workaholism cost her one long-term relationship, and has affected her ability to develop deeper friendships. “If you have any personal issues you can easily hide from them in your work,” she says.

“Among my friends I was known as someone who was always late, ‘you can’t rely on her’. It would make my flesh creep, I would squirm, I felt terrible shame.”

Veronica has a number of chronic illnesses she attributes to her workaholism, including gastric reflux, insomnia and anxiety, as well as an eating disorder.

Workaholics are more likely to have alcohol problems, get dementia, suffer heart disease, gastro-intestinal problems and diabetes. One study found a third of people being treated for sex addiction were workaholics.

The train wreck education administrator Kate feared never eventuated. She was made redundant and the deadline which had dominated her life disappeared. “Circumstances probably did for me what I wouldn’t have felt confident doing myself,” says Kate, who goes to Workaholics Anonymous weekly.

But while people like Kate and Veronica are trying to shed their workaholism, others embrace it.

Unashamed workaholics who contacted Extra all reported working long hours including weekends, found it impossible to switch off from work and copped grief from family and friends for always working. They claim such commitment is necessary to succeed in their careers, and insist they actually enjoy being in a workaholic state.

“I absolutely love what I’m doing,” internet entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan says. “So when people say to me ‘how many hours a week do you work?’ I tell them I don’t work any hours a week – I live this stuff.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Anna Hopkins, who runs her own cafe Whole Meal in Darlinghurst and is developing a range of protein products. “Society calls me a workaholic, but I love what I do so I don’t consider it work,” the 32-year-old says. “You do what you do so you get the results you want. Steve Jobs didn’t talk about work/life balance when he was inventing the iPhone.”

For recovering workaholics like Kate and Veronica the risk of crossing the line into unhealthy working always lurks. They are learning to set acceptable work boundaries, let go of unrealistic expectations, prioritise tasks and enjoy recreation.

“I’m learning at WA to value myself as a human being, regardless of whether I’m working, regardless of what I do for work, regardless of what position title I have,” says Kate.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.


If you answer ”often” or ”always” to at least four of the following, you may be a workaholic:

• You think of how you can free up more time to work.

• You spend much more time working than initially intended.

• You work to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression.

• You won’t listen when told by others to cut down on work.

• You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.

• You deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities and exercise because of your work.

• You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Steps to cure workaholism:

• Gradually reduce work hours.

• Plan time for recreation.

• Exercise every day.

• Avoid talking shop over lunch.

• Carefully select leisure activities.

• Refuse to feel guilty when you are not working.

Workaholics deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities and exercise. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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