Workaholism, like any addiction, is difficult to admit – especially since working is a good thing. We gain considerable pride and satisfaction from a job well done, and our confidence and self esteem can be nurtured through meaningful work.

Important distinction 

There is a difference between being a hard worker and a workaholic. Hard workers often accomplish a great deal, but they recognize and honour their limits; they take time for their relationships, for rest and play. Hard workers take regular vacations and stay home when they are sick. Essentially, they choose balance in all things, including work.

Workaholics, on the other hand, also work hard, but to the exclusion of most other things in life. Relationships suffer, and rest and play are not words in their vocabulary. Like hard workers, workaholics can also achieve great things, but usually at great cost to themselves and loved ones. Often they are gifted, charismatic and competent, but they are also driven. They don’t recognize their limits and often take on more than is humanly possible to accomplish. Workaholics might rise early and stay up late, often working 10 to 18 hours a day. Or they may work an eight-hour day, but fill in the rest of the time working compulsively around the house or volunteering.

It can happen to anyone

Anyone can be a workaholic. It’s not what kind of work you do, how many hours you spend working, or whether you get paid or not that makes you a workaholic. The underlying reasons that drive the working behaviour determine whether someone is a hard worker or a workaholic. It’s the "why" you work that makes the difference.

Stay-at-home parents, students and volunteers can all be workaholics. We all know there is always something to do around the house! It’s easy for workaholics to keep themselves super busy all day, every day, looking after home and children. Students busy with studies may work obsessively, too, rarely taking a break, consumed by all the academic deadlines. Volunteers may fill their time pursuing the endless opportunities to help worthy causes. In and of themselves, a career, running a home, raising children, studying and volunteering do not lead to or create workaholism. But a workaholic may express their addiction through any of these responsibilities.

Workaholics have discovered that working hard can be very satisfying, bringing positive feelings and sometimes even euphoria. As well, workaholics are often rewarded through promotions, financial bonuses and admiration from others. All this is true for non-workaholics, too. But workaholics become obsessed with these good feelings and rewards. They become driven, working and striving harder to attain that elusive euphoric feeling and pat on the back. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that workaholics have discovered that compulsive working can distract them from their emotional pain. Workaholism is ultimately an unhealthy way of coping with stress and the problems of life.

Impact on the family

The impact of workaholism on the family is profound. A workaholic is unavailable spiritually, physically and emotionally to both spouse and children. The non-workaholic spouse is often left alone to manage the household and child-rearing responsibilities. Spouses often feel neglected and resentful. If they confront the workaholic they may be told, "I’m doing this for the family." Sometimes they are accused of being the cause, "You were the one who wanted this big house and the fancy vacations. Someone has to pay for it."

Workaholics have many excuses for working so hard: a special project that’s almost done, the cost of putting the kids through school, saving for retirement (when they’ll be able to stop working so much) and on and on the excuses run. Children grow up literally without a parent, and may begin to believe they are not important enough to spend time with. They may start acting out to get attention from the unavailable parent. Even though that attention may be negative, it’s better than no attention at all. Children crave connection with their parents; they need it to grow into healthy adults. When one parent is pre-occupied to the exclusion of their spouse and children, the inevitable result is marital and family breakdown. But when there are problems at home, the workaholic dives deeper into work.

Help is available from support groups such as Celebrate Recovery – a program is designed to help people break the stronghold that addictions have on them, or to provide support for those affected by an addiction. Some people find help through professional Christian counselling. The most important thing is to seek help and support from trustworthy people who have experience in recovery from workaholism and its impact.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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