Workaholism: Is it an epidemic?

Fueled by economic fears, 24/7 virtual availability and a collective cultural mindset of employees deriving their entire self-worth and identity from their job title and performance, it’s no surprise that workaholism is becoming the default base line for the US worker.

Lisa Orbé-Austin, PhD, is a psychologist with a Manhattan practice who focuses on career issues. She defines the workaholic—noting the word “workaholic” is an understood pop culture buzzword, rather than clinical—as someone who is compelled to work because of internal pressure. “Working beyond what is reasonably expected,” she explains, “and having negative consequences,” listing poor health, relationship problems, burnout, and mental health issues. A workaholic might be that employee who works 60 hours a week, when only expected to work, and financially compensated for, 40 hours.

Orbé-Austin has found the “imposter phenomenon” to be a common underlying issue among many workaholics. “People who feel like they’ve always got to prove themselves because they’re not really as good as people think,” explains Orbé-Austin. These employees, no matter how senior with excellent track records, believe it’s only a matter of time before their incompetence will be revealed. “Sometimes people grow up being told they are not smart, so they think, ‘I don’t really have intelligence, all I have is the ability to work hard,’” adds Orbé-Austin.

Roy Cohen, a career coach for Wall Street professionals believes workholism needs to be examined holistically. “It often occurs with other issues,” says Cohen, who occasionally brings his miniature Labradoodle to the office. “It could be that there’s an obsessive compulsive disorder, which leads to workaholism,” he explains, noting that anxiety, long standing issues with depression, and ADHD have also been linked to workaholism.

There are no concrete statistics on workaholism per say, but it’s anecdotally evident that offices throughout the US—from gleaming towers in cities to 70s-style suburban office parks—are filled with employees willing to work far beyond what’s expected by their superiors.

But what about the realities of layoffs, automation, ageism, outsourcing, and the skyrocketing cost of living? Doesn’t the average employee have to work around the clock to just survive, never mind advance? Yes and no. Those grappling with workaholism must figure out their own sense of priorities and what brings them fulfillment.

“There are some people whose lives are their work, and they’re very passionate about what they are doing,” says Cohen. [He adds that if there are no problems at home as a result,] “That actually sounds like they just don’t have enough time in the day.”

Orbé-Austin disagrees. She points out that although a compulsive worker might not have any acute negative consequences, employment can change on a dime. Lay-offs happen. Unemployment is depressing for most people, but absolutely devastating for those who only feel worthy when working, and see themselves as their job title. The unemployed workaholic is left with a terrifying loss of identity and self-worth. Since they haven’t cultivated interests, they haven’t an inkling what brings them joy outside a working environment. Never mind having no support system since they haven’t cultivated relationships should catastrophe hit, physical or emotional.

So what should one do if they feel they are walking the fine line of healthy competitive working and using work as a drug to avoid emotions? Most people use work as a refuge from life periodically, but for others it’s a pattern. For those who feel their emotional, physical, even spiritual life might be in jeopardy from working compulsively, a variety of help is available.

The first step is recognizing the problem, second is the willingness to do something about it. A quick google search shows where meetings for the 12-step program Workaholics Anonymous take place, as well as WA’s virtual meetings. Numerous books have been published on the subject including Workaholics Anonymous Book of Recovery, which can be purchased online. Therapists who specialize in work issues often provide individual and group sessions.

For some people seeking relief from workaholism, like Jennifer who lives in Florida, WA meetings have provided sufficient help. But for others, those who might be spooked by the Higher Power, aka God, aspect of WA (FYI, you can be an atheist; WA literature even suggests Goddess, Great Spirit, among other entities as a substitute for God) or those who feel they need the big guns, seek help from trained professionals.

Orbé-Austin believes career coaching is where the workaholic can figure out underlying issues and triggers that ignite workaholic tendencies. She offered several of her suggestions, however each profession has its peculiarities, so they can’t be applied to all.

• Set clear boundaries about work availability if possible. “It’s not always easy,” admits Orbé-Austin. She suggests a concise, “After this time, I’m unavailable.”
• Turn off notifications on the cell phone, remove work email from the phone on weekends.
• Develop other parts of oneself outside work.
• Work at being present. Orbé-Austin teaches the majority of her clients how to meditate and be present in their lives. “It helps them to discern if something is urgent,” says Orbé-Austin, “or if it can be taken care of tomorrow.”

It [might] be scary to address workaholism, as nasty goblins of the soul can emerge while parsing out deep-seated issues of emotional avoidance. It might not be immediate, but the process eventually pays off with peace of mind. As for rectifying the workaholic epidemic? In the words of former comedian, now Minnesota Sen. Al Franken: “It’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world.”