Workaholism and Mental Health: How Being “Always On” Is Destroying Your Well-Being

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

There is no disputing the American work ethic. Hard work, long hours and fewer vacations are held in high regard. In addition to generating income, it is believed to yield a sense of personal accomplishment and achievement. 

However, according to the National Institutes of Health, more than 15 percent of all American workers have an unhealthy relationship with work. This can be characterized as some level of “workaholism.” Recent changes in workplace environments, including increased remote work, have only complicated this issue. 

This article covers the relationship between workaholism and mental health. It will help you understand how being “always on” can impact your well-being. Keep reading to learn more about this dynamic, as well as effective ways to address it. 

What Is Workaholism?

The phrase “workaholism” was coined by Wayne Oates, a professor, pastor, and counselor. Oates himself struggled to make a clear distinction between being dedicated versus being addicted to one’s vocation. This distinction remains central to understanding how workaholism works.  

Oates said that workaholism is “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” There have been–and are–disagreements among psychologists about how to quantify this definition. This is especially true as it pertains to scope and severity. 

The best way of understanding workaholism is a pattern of behaviors where an individual has an exceedingly, usually compulsory, drive to work. It almost always involves a dedication to work that is to the detriment of one’s personal life. 

Common Causes of Workaholism

While there can be many different scenarios that can lead to workaholism, there are some common causes. These include: 

  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of failure
  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive stress
  • External pressures
  • Uneven work-life balance

For instance, someone with perfectionist tendencies may devote excess focus to tasks because they feel like they need to complete them flawlessly. Others with a fear of failure or low self-esteem will have an inclination to always do better or do more. Stress, including external pressures, can cause someone to overfocus on a job as a way of escape. 

How Do I Know if I Am a Workaholic?

Is being dedicated to work and finding value in your profession “workaholism”? No, in fact, lack of joy or satisfaction related to work is a typical sign of workaholism. 

Using the analogy of substance addiction, being able to not drink for a day does not prove you are not an alcoholic. If alcohol consumption is affecting your life in negative ways, then there is an alcohol abuse disorder. Similarly, spending an excessive amount of time at work and the inability to dial it back signals an issue. 

Listed below are some other common symptoms of workaholism: 

  • Always putting work first, regardless of other obligations
  • Exceedingly long hours at work
  • Lacking boundaries between work and personal life
  • Difficulty delegating tasks
  • Difficulty taking breaks

Again, these can result from one of the causes listed in the previous section, or from some combination of them. Note that these symptoms can result from other issues as well, but are common with workaholism.  

Can My Job Make Me a Workaholic?

Many people who experience workaholism believe that their particular position makes them a workaholic. Anyone with a demanding job will experience a lot of stress. They will likely have to make difficult decisions about their personal life when long work hours are needed.  

However, rarely does a work environment alone cause workaholism. It is more likely that the position is an outlet for someone who is predisposed to workaholism in the first place. 

​​Workaholism and Mental Health

Workaholism can take a serious toll on one’s mental health and well-being. Some of the most common impacts include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Relationship issues
  • Impaired work-life balance
  • Feeling burnt out 

Another surprising yet common effect of workaholism is diminished productivity. This results from fatigue and burnout associated with the demands of work. 

Note that, while we are focusing on workaholism and mental health, it can affect your physical health as well. Chronic stress can weaken your immune system’s resilience. 

People with workaholism also often have cardiovascular and digestive issues. It can cause disrupted eating patterns or compulsory eating. Workaholism can affect your sleep, which can in turn further exacerbate existing mental health issues. 

What Are the Treatments for Workaholism?

The good news is that there are some very effective treatments for workaholism, and they do not demand that someone quit their job. 

One of the most common treatments for workaholism is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a type of psychotherapy that targets the root causes of the condition. By examining certain characteristics or fears, such as perfectionism or a deep-seated fear of failure, the therapist can address maladaptive coping mechanisms and distorted thought processes. It is a short-term, action-oriented, problem solving approach that, if implemented correctly, can help people see very positive results early on.  

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another common approach. This type of treatment is an offshoot of CBT, and is geared towards helping people be mindful of their current emotional states. It focuses on helping people regulate intense emotional experiences and in finding adaptive ways to cope. In the context of workaholism, DBT helps individuals look at how to manage excessive self control, cognitive and behavioral inflexibility, and lack of social connection.

Since every person is unique, these therapeutic approaches might be combined with other treatments. For instance, if the issues result from external stressors, then family therapy could be useful. 

For many individuals, group therapy, including those like Workaholics Anonymous, can be useful. This can help the patient learn coping skills from people who have experienced similar challenges. Both family and group therapy can also help create a network of support for recovering workaholics. 

Find Therapy for Workaholism Near You 

Now that you understand the relationship between workaholism and mental health and well-being, you can take steps to effect change. The key to success is finding the right approach to your unique set of circumstances. 

Since 1995, Advanced Behavioral Health has been treating clients with a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, mood-related disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and many others. We are located in Midtown Manhattan and specialize in cognitive behavior, dialectic behavior, and mindfulness-based therapies. Reach out to us today to schedule an appointment.

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