Combating Workaholism

28 Feb 2013
Combating Workaholism
Photo Credit: Masterfile

Is someone you know a workaholic? Sheila O'Connor tells us how to deal with the situation.

How often have you met someone for the first time and the first question they asked was, “What do you do?

Work, for most of us, is something that pays the bills, buys the groceries and gives us a way to enjoy fun things such as holidays and evenings out. But when a person’s work starts becoming the be-all and end-all of their existence, it’s a sign they are turning into a workaholic.

The Loneliness Defence

Karen, who is single, recently moved from a small town to Sydney to work for a large company. When her boss asked her to work late into the evenings on an urgent project, Karen was pleased, seeing it as an opportunity to show how reliable and diligent she was. She secretly hoped her efforts would land her a much sought-after promotion.

Unfortunately, her occasional overtime soon became a habit and she found herself working long hours after she’d finished the project and obtained her promotion. She made all kinds of excuses for staying late but, deep down, the real reason was that she hated going home to an empty apartment every night.

Joseph R Novello, a psychiatrist with a private practice in Washington, DC, says, “More single people than married people tend to be workaholics as a defence against loneliness. They convince themselves that their work needs them because often nobody at home does. When they’re engrossed in work they don’t need to face up to a lonely reality.

Finding Compromise

Workaholism can also affect married people. Kathy suspected her husband, Michael, was becoming a workaholic when he started bringing work home from the office at night. She hardly ever saw him and their two children were becoming upset that their daddy spent less and less time with them.

The answer, she found, was not in trying to drastically change Michael or even trying to ward off his workaholic tendencies. Instead, she learned to compromise and incorporate family time into her husband’s busy day. She scheduled a quiet, leisurely dinner hour for the two of them in the evening and time after dinner for Michael to play with the children before they went to bed. After that, he had the rest of the evening free to work if he wanted to.

Sunday afternoons were kept as quality family time. When the family went on holidays, she didn’t object when Michael took work down to the beach because she knew he would only get anxious if he didn’t. In the meantime, Kathy would sunbathe or swim with the children.

Learning to accommodate her husband’s workaholism in this way was not easy for Kathy, but at least the children were able to see their father more than before. In addition, a part-time job of her own gave Kathy another interest outside the home and family.

Workaholic Tendencies

What is it that turns a person into a workaholic? Often the problem originates in childhood. While a healthy attitude toward work and getting ahead is good, when it starts to interfere with other areas of life, it’s time to take stock of the situation.

Parents can often sow the seeds of workaholism in their children when they’re still very young.

Novello says, “Often, without realising it, parents give off signals that they love their children not for who they are but for what they achieve. They encourage their children to strive for excellence. When the child does something right, they are praised and in that child’s eyes, loved."

Because the child gets the message that they are loved as long as they are achieving, they go on trying to achieve. Ironically, once the child has achieved something, a sense of emptiness sets in and they go on to something new to fill the emptiness, but all the time just clutching at straws.”

This phenomenon shows up primarily in an oldest child or an only child. Since these children are considered the standard bearers for the family, much is expected of them and they tend to grow up being achievers. It isn’t surprising, for instance, that 22 out of the first 29 astronauts were oldest children. Such children also tend to enter professions that keep them busier than most, such as pilots, physicians and the like.

Novello says, “When the eldest or only child becomes a leader they are often respected or feared, but seldom loved. Middle children, on the other hand, tend to be better loved and have more successful interpersonal relationships.

Low Self-Worth

Another factor that may result in workaholism is a lack of self-worth. The message workaholics give themselves is that “nobody will feel I’m good enough if I don’t achieve.” This can make them vulnerable in later life, especially when it comes to retirement. Having put all their eggs in one basket by concentrating on work and having little social activity, they often feel they have nothing left and this can lead to severe depression. A marriage that has worked until then may also suddenly begin to break apart.

When Caroline’s husband took early retirement, problems started for her at home. While Bill had always been a bit of a workaholic, this didn’t bother Caroline, who was happy to run the household. Once he retired though, Bill started trying to take over Caroline’s domain.

Things started to improve when she put him in charge of certain tasks that made him feel useful. When a salesperson called, selling double-glazed windows or a new, more economical heating system, Caroline left Bill to deal with the salesperson. He was happy checking out details and finding the best solutions for their needs, all of which kept him busy. When it came to holidays, she even let him research the options available and plan the itinerary. It made Bill feel he was still making important decisions while, at the same time, letting Caroline get on with her usual tasks.


But what can you do if you work for a workaholic? Brenda’s boss, Margaret, showed signs of workaholism. Margaret had difficulty delegating work and when she did, she constantly checked what Brenda was doing and criticised even the smallest detail. Novello says this latter tendency is a classic symptom of workaholism. “The workaholic has an imperfection in herself that she cannot accept. She then projects it onto a subordinate.

Margaret expected Brenda to work long hours and couldn’t understand that she might want to have a social life outside of work. While she thought she was being a good leader, Margaret’s actions were, in fact, counterproductive, leaving Brenda feeling miserable and untrusted.

As Roger Smith, the former chair of General Motors, once said, “A good leader sets overall goals, creates enthusiasm, hires and retains good people, then has the good sense to delegate and go home.

But even if you can’t change a workaholic boss, you can still play their game. The important thing to remember is to keep your sense of humour.

  • Try joking about the effect the boss’s workaholism is having on you, or even better, have a rational talk with them.
  • Avoid a heated confrontation because it seldom works. Workaholics are not likely to admit they’re wrong.
  • Insist on knowing what part of your job has priority and make a list. After all, it’s what the workaholic likes to do! You can use the list to show what you’ve achieved. “I researched the details you needed on project X and I got it done by 3pm. Then I started on the client list you wanted for project Y.”
  • Don’t be intimidated and learn to say No when you need to.

Also keep in mind that not all obsessive behaviour is bad. After all, if you were about to take off in a plane, you’d appreciate having a pilot who was obsessive about going over all 100 items on their checklist and not just 99.

When You Are The Problem!

But what if the workaholic is you? There are several ways you can ease the pressure on yourself.

  • Identify and accept the problem as your own and make a point of scheduling relaxation time.
  • Take a long lunch hour once in a while and learn to call overtime by its real name.
  • Make a commitment to set aside weekends for God and family. All this won’t happen overnight, but recognising the need is the start to solving the problem.

One 85-year-old woman, a workaholic most of her life, was once asked what she would change if she could live her life over again.

She said, “I would make more mistakes and learn to relax. I would be silly more often, take more chances and eat more ice-cream! I wouldn’t live ahead of each day. I wouldn’t carry around so much emotional baggage. I would travel much lighter.

Workaholism is an illness that can be cured. Learning to travel light is the secret to enjoying the journey to success.


Sheila O'Connor