What is a Workaholic?
Published By Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP
October 10, 2023
In the bustling world of tight deadlines, aspirational goals, and endless to-do lists, we often hear the term “workaholic.” What does that really mean though? Is workaholism a real thing?
What is a Workaholic?
We can all think of people who work hard or are dedicated to their jobs. Hard work is a noble trait, often driven by passion, responsibility, or the quest for excellence. It signifies commitment, discipline, and often results in professional and personal growth.
While hard workers can disconnect and recharge, workaholics often struggle with overwhelming anxiety when they are not working, making relaxation or taking breaks seem almost impossible. Workaholics are unable to switch off from work mentally, emotionally, and, sometimes, even physically. Work starts to dominate an individual’s life, to the detriment of their personal relationships, health, and overall well-being.
Workaholism is not just about the number of hours clocked. A workaholic does not just work a lot, they often feel compelled to work. This compulsion often stems from fear—fear of inadequacy, fear of missing out, or fear of facing other aspects of life. Workaholism is an unhealthy obsession with work.
Where Did The Term Workaholic Come From?
Wayne Oates, an American psychologist, is credited with coining the term in his 1971 book titled Confessions of a Workaholic. Oates drew from his personal experiences, exploring the reasons behind his compulsion to work and the impact it had on his life.
A parallel was drawn between someone who works compulsively and other addictive behaviors—notably, alcoholism. The suffix “-aholic” (borrowed from “alcoholic”) implies a uncontrollable dependence.
Since then, as the corporate world has evolved, so has our understanding of workaholism. Today, with the advent of smartphones and the digital age, the boundaries between work and personal life can blur. That is one reason the importance of work-life balance and the potential pitfalls of incessant working are more important now than ever before.
Prevalence of Workaholism: How Many Workaholics are There?
Workaholism is more prevalent than most realize. Studies suggest anywhere from eight to 17.5 percent of the population could be considered a workaholic. A 2023 review of studies pooled the results of available surveys and put the number at a little over 14 percent. Some, however, put the number much higher, as in the case of a 2019 survey where about one-half of the workforce, or 48 percent, deemed themselves to workaholics.
Workaholism occurs more often among those in management. Also, certain industries are more prone to workaholism than others, including communication, consulting, construction, agriculture and commercial trade.
As it turns out, workaholism has psychological underpinnings. Understanding the roots and manifestations of workaholism can equip us to navigate a world that often equates busyness with worth.
The Psychology of a Workaholic
“I am a recovering workaholic. I base my worth on my GPA and my resume, and I pick up more projects and jobs than I should because I am afraid that having any down time means I am lazy. Obviously my obsession with work is unhealthy in this extreme degree. However, I’ve also come to realize it is unhealthy at its core because it is based on the incorrect assumption that work and productivity are the most important things in life.“
-Kristiane Sonnenberg, Confessions of a Workaholic, Daily Utah Chronicle
Why do some people tread the fine line between working hard and obsession? What propels certain individuals to immerse themselves in work to the point of detriment? To truly appreciate the complexity of workaholism, we need to dive deep into the human psyche.
The Roots of Workaholism
Workaholism does not spontaneously occur. Rather, it springs from a complex web of biological, emotional, psychological, and societal factors. Recognizing these can be the first step in addressing workaholism and fostering a healthier relationship with work and oneself. By looking deeper into these underlying causes, we can better equip ourselves to understand, empathize, and potentially intervene.
The Workaholic Brain (Dopamine Hits)
Our brain plays a pivotal role in reinforcing certain behaviors. Each time we achieve something, be it a task at work or a personal goal, our brain releases dopamine. This neurotransmitter is a key part of the brain’s pleasure and reward system. These “dopamine hits” can be addictive. For some, the consistent stream of achievements at work becomes a primary source of dopamine release. Over time, they can become reliant on work as a means to feel good, creating a cycle that is hard to break and leading to workaholism patterns.
The Workaholic Personality (neuroticism, anxiety and control)
Certain personality traits might predispose individuals to workaholic tendencies. Perfectionists, for instance, often feel the need to constantly prove themselves, leading to overworking. Those with high levels of neuroticism may use work as a way to self-medicate their internal anxieties. Furthermore, individuals with a strong desire for control might find solace in work, where they feel they can dictate outcomes more than they can in other facets of their life.
Societal pressures (and the glorification of busy-ness)
In many cultures and especially in the corporate world, there’s a silent (and sometimes not-so-silent) admiration for those who are “always busy.” The idea of being perpetually engaged has, unfortunately, become synonymous with success, dedication, and ambition. Phrases like “burning the midnight oil” or “hustle culture” perpetuate the belief that relentless work is the only path to success. These societal standards can pressurize individuals into believing that taking a break or seeking leisure is a sign of weakness or lack of commitment.
Personal insecurities (and the need for validation)
For some, work becomes a sanctuary—a place where they feel valued, needed, and successful. In instances where one’s self-worth is closely tied to their professional achievements, there is a constant chase for the next big accomplishment. This chase, more often than not, is less about the love for the job and more about seeking external validation to combat internal feelings of inadequacy.
Past traumas (upbringing factors that lead to compulsive work habits)
Childhood experiences and upbringing play a significant role in molding our relationship with work. Individuals raised in environments where success was heavily emphasized or financial struggles were prevalent might develop an excessive drive to work. Similarly, past traumas or experiences that equated worth with achievements can embed deep-rooted beliefs that lead to workaholic tendencies.
Mental conditions (anxiety and depression)
Workaholism, like may addictions, has been widely theorized to spring from the desire to quell symptoms of underlying disorders like depression and anxiety. In fact, a 2016 scientific study found that to be the case with some instances of workaholism. In fact, during the COVID pandemic, which raised levels of anxiety in the general population, many people worked more hours. Also, just as drug and alcohol addictions can bring on anxiety and depression as well, so can workaholism.
Evolution of the digital age (and the “always-on” work culture)
With the digital revolution, work has, in many ways, transcended physical boundaries. The influx of smartphones, laptops, and constant connectivity means that many people can work from anywhere, anytime. While this has some obvious advantages, it also means that the work life balance can easily get off-kilter. The “always-on” culture, where one is expected to be continually available, can inadvertently foster feelings of guilt for ‘logging off’ or taking personal time.
It’s worth noting that not every item listed above may resonate with every workaholic. Workaholism, like any other behavioral pattern, is multi-faceted and unique to the individual. However, by understanding these common triggers, we can create more supportive environments and pave the way for healthier work habits and mindsets.
The Effects of Workaholism on Mental Health
Workaholism has ripple effects on our mental health. Just like any other compulsion or addiction, excessive work has consequences that extend beyond the office desk. To grasp the full scope of workaholism, we must also recognize its potential drawbacks.
Burnout (emotional, physical and mental exhaustion)
One of the most glaring signs of workaholism is burnout. Burnout is an overwhelming sense of fatigue. Every task feels monumental and motivation is a distant memory. Burnout is not just about being tired; it is an exhaustive state that affects you emotionally, mentally, and physically. Over time, it can lead to decreased productivity, detachment, and feelings of cynicism.
Relationship dysfunction (and social isolation)
As work takes center stage, personal relationships fade into the background. Time for family, friends, and loved ones starts to diminish, leading to strained relationships. The constant preoccupation with work can also lead to social isolation. Many workaholics will find themselves disconnected from previous social circles and activities.
Anxiety and depression (and other psychological disorders)
While workaholism can spring up from mental conditions such as depression and anxiety, the incessant need to work, coupled with the inability to switch off, can cause these conditions as well. The fear of missing deadlines, not meeting standards, or simply being away from work can escalate stress levels. Over prolonged periods, this can also pave the way for depressive episodes, especially if your self-worth is intricately tied to work accomplishments.
Physical health risks (sleep deprivation, chronic stress, and cardiovascular diseases)
Our bodies bear the brunt of our lifestyles. Workaholics often compromise on sleep, opting to complete just “one more task.” Over time, sleep deprivation can have severe health repercussions, from impaired cognitive functions to weakened immunity. Chronic stress, a constant companion of workaholism, is also linked to a host of health concerns, including cardiovascular disease and digestive issues.
Treatment for Workaholics
“At least in my case, popular culture isn’t to blame for my workaholism. Instead, my obsession is deeply rooted in a need for approval, love and validation. Today, I’m lucky to have an amazing support system, but even so, I desire to please people who will never assuage the empty feeling in my gut. The temporary satisfaction of overperforming for a client is something that, however fleeting, I crave.“
-Seth Weiss, I am a Workaholic, Here are Five Ways I Overcame my Obsessive Behavior, Entrepreneur.com
If you are a workaholic, or love someone who is, there is hope. There are three therapeutic modalities in particular that have shown a lot of promise in treating workaholism.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT takes aim at our thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. Our thoughts drive our actions, and, by changing our thoughts, we can change our behaviors. With CBT, we can correct destructive thinking and faulty, underlying beliefs and introduce new, positive ways of thinking. Role playing is one method by which workaholics can change their conditioned response to events in their lives, reducing the need to turn to excessive work and reinforcing a more positive result.
This focuses on bringing out the individual’s own thoughts on the subject of workaholism. Through skillful questioning, the therapist allows the individual to identify what they would like their life to be versus what it is now. The client comes to recognize the negative effects of workaholism on their life, make a decision to change, and strengthens their resolve to do so.
With positive psychology, the focus shifts from faults and shortcomings to an individual’s strengths and good qualities. Self-care is emphasized and an overall vision or meaningful goal is created so that the individual can focus on moving toward the positive.
Of course, treating underlying trauma or other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety can help as well.
Workaholics Can Change
“If I fight my workaholism, that’s like fighting the fire department when your house is on fire. You add stress. You don’t fight yourself. You don’t attack yourself. You bring compassion to it… For me, I’m recovering. But my work for a long time was anesthetic; it really calmed me down. Without it, my anxiety went through the roof.”
-Bryan Robinson, Advice from a Workaholic: Break Free I NPR.com
While it is tempting to brush off workaholism as just “working too much,” its ramifications on mental and physical health are profound. Recognizing these implications isn’t about inducing fear but fostering awareness. An informed understanding can empower individuals to seek help, make changes, and prioritize their well-being alongside their professional ambitions. If you suspect workaholism is affecting you, look for a qualified mental health clinic or therapist to help you.
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- Andreassen, C. S. (2014). Workaholism: An overview and current status of the research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(1), 1–11.
- APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Dictionary.apa.org.
- Brooks, A. C. (2023, February 2). The Hidden Link Between Workaholism and Mental Health. The Atlantic.
- Robinson, Bryan (2023, May 8). Advice from a recovering workaholic: break free. NPR.
- Sonnenberg, K. (2018, June 13). Sonnenberg: Confessions of a Workaholic – The Daily Utah Chronicle.
- SWNS. (2019, February). Almost half of Americans consider themselves “workaholics.” New York Post; New York Post.
- Weiss, S. (2022, November 8). Confessions of a Workaholic: How to Overcome Obsessive Working Behaviors. Entrepreneur.