Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Advice For Workaholics: Work Less, Live Better, Do Better Work

July 28, 2003

What if you had a disease that everyone but your closest intimates applauded? What if you felt that your disease was the key to your achievement and financial success? How hard would it be to give it up? The disease is workaholism, the most socially approved addiction we can have.

What is a workaholic? A workaholic is typically a male compulsion though females may develop these qualities also. Workaholism is an approach to work that is compulsively driven by inner anxieties, fear and guilt. Workaholics spend their time and energy doing work while neglecting other valuable aspects of life.

These people don’t feel comfortable unless they are doing something. They have difficulty relaxing, enjoying leisure time, reflecting or meditating, or enjoying activities that are not goal oriented. Their anxiety level gets too high unless they are involved in an activity.

Workaholism is learned. Workaholism is generally motivated by underlying psychological needs that have their origins in childhood. Here are some common patterns.

- Many workaholics grow up in dysfunctional families. To cope with the chaos and confusion of their childhood they take refuge in schoolwork, housework or competitive sports to overcome feelings of inadequacy. These activities help them feel better about themselves, more secure and in control of their lives.

Valiant efforts to succeed and achieve mask strong needs for approval, recognition and a poor sense of self-esteem. They have a strong need for recognition and validation from society. They try to prove to themselves and others that they are special, worthy and competent.

- If a child observed a parent debilitated by alcoholism - especially if the alcoholism resulted in failure and economic hardship - he or she might try to undo the inner shame and poverty by shunning alcohol and working compulsively for success.

One generation reacts to the negative aspects of their parents' lives and overcompensates in order to eliminate the failure they observed.

- Children also learn workaholism in families where the rules for living are too rigid and perfect. Parents give the message that to be accepted and approved their children have to do what others want them to do.

Self-worth is measured by what others think. Self-esteem is gained by being good, doing right, doing well and never failing. Often parents are busy and over-involved in their own activities.

As adults, they derive their feelings of self-worth from what others think of them. They have a special need for approval from others and are sensitive to their image and reputation in the community.

- Another form of workaholism comes from a family environment of poverty and hardship. When a child is reared in poverty, he or she may work compulsively to raise their lifestyle to a comfortable existence.

Workaholics who come from poverty backgrounds are often motivated by a fear of failure. They can never have enough. They could lose everything. They work hard and keep working hard.

- Children can over-identify with their parent's workaholism when they have a chance to observe the work first hand. In a family business, a child may grow up observing the workaholic lifestyle of a parent and identify with his or her workaholic qualities.

To prove oneself and to gain parental approval, a child learns to work just as hard and compulsively. For example, a father may compete with the son to prove he is still on top while the son competes with the father to earn his father's respect. Each may over-invest themselves and justify their work while neglecting to find balance in their personal and family life.

Doing less and living better. Workaholism leads to problems with family life, relationships, rigidity and lack of real choices in life. Workaholics make real changes when they recognize the underlying motivation for their work-driven lifestyles. This may mean exploring issues from their own childhood and the psychological needs they carry into their adult lives.

Workaholics need to throttle back 10 to 20 percent in their work and observe what happens. Research has shown that workaholics can cut back twenty percent on their work time and experience virtually the same amount of success as before.

The additional work doesn't measurably add to their success. Workaholics don't know this until they take a risk and observe the results. It takes getting away and experiencing the benefits to understand that the work actually becomes better.

By working less, people are less vulnerable to burnout, have happier family lives, handle stress better and are able to get better perspectives on what they are doing. By working less, they end up being more productive.

Vacations are important. Vacations and time away from work need to be scheduled in advance and protected from intrusions. Leisure and recreation are important human needs and bring balance to life.

It may take a week to unwind and appreciate the break but then workaholics begin to grasp how healthy and renewing time away from the job can be.

Positive role models of top managers and executives toward vacation and time away also give permission for others in the organization to relish their time off too. Well managed companies understand vacation and educational leave policies are factors in maintaining high morale and productivity.

Now that this column is written, It is time to quit. Relax. Kick back. Next week will come soon enough.