“There’s No Time to Rest.”

That was Jerry’s* response to his wife’s request for a stop at the next interstate rest center. He was driving like he worked—no stopping until he achieved his goal. Jane was aching from the past three hours of constant travel but her workaholic husband seemed oblivious to her request. She knew that his timetable was an arbitrary schedule he had chosen before leaving home. His custom was to set a time for arrival at his mother’s house—exactly eight hours from departure. His margin of error was only five minutes (plus or minus), meaning that any stop had to be an emergency with minimal time lost. For Jerry, achieving that goal would result in a bit of boasting; being “late” would lead to hours of irritability and moodiness. Over the years Jane had learned to adjust to his demanding travel pattern, but now she was reaching her limit. Thankfully, their three children were almost grown. They had suffered many miserable trips with a father who refused to deviate from his self-determined schedule. Jane closed her eyes and tried to doze, hoping that the hours would pass more quickly. She pondered the growing resentment she felt toward Jerry. Her anger increased as she questioned, “Why does he have to be a workaholic in everything he does?”

Unfortunately, Jane’s assessment was correct. Jerry was a devoted traveler on the Workaholism Highway. During their eighteen years of marriage he had acknowledged on several occasions that he knew he was a workaholic.  Added to her frustration was the apparent pride he took in his work style. She had heard him brag to friends about the overtime hours he was working and the consecutive days he had worked without time off. Jane was also correct in her assessment that Jerry was oblivious to the stress he had brought upon his family and the many ways they had suffered as a result of his relentless pattern. He was unaware of the continuing damage being done to their marriage and the growing distance between them. In her hopelessness she was convinced that Jerry would not change his lifestyle even if he knew his marriage was literally at stake. For Jane, the marital future felt ominous and overwhelming. She knew from eighteen years of personal experience that the relationship highway with Jerry would always be a rough road to travel.  

Jane’s feelings of disappointment and resentment are typical of individuals who are in relationships with workaholics. However, workaholism is usually much more than a relationship issue. On a personal level many long-term workaholics eventually become disillusioned with their own lifestyle. In spite of hours worked and goals achieved they feel empty, numb, and burned out. For many of them serious health problems occur which serve as a major wake-up call and a motivation to travel a safer highway in life. Because workaholism poses such a serious threat to both individual and relationship health and happiness we would do well to consider the problem itself as well as potential solutions.

Wheels of Workaholism

Have you questioned whether or not you might qualify for workaholism? If so, what criteria have you used for making your assessment? Let’s deal with this assessment issue by describing the basic pattern and then looking at the “wheels” that keep the workaholic moving along the Workaholism Highway.

Essentially, a workaholic is an individual who is overly preoccupied with work and under-attentive to other areas of life. The number of hours worked and the amount of energy expended are excessive. The workaholic’s personal identity and self-worth are usually tied up in the job itself. Therefore, he must work more and more to achieve and maintain both his identity and self-worth. Work becomes his top priority in life; all other responsibilities, including key relationships, decrease in value and importance. Over time his devotion to his work takes on an addictive quality, and he is likely to experience emotional “withdrawal symptoms” when he is not at work. He thinks about work even when he is at home with his family or when he is involved in other non-work activities. He is excited about going to work and is disappointed when he has to leave work.

The definition of workaholism includes the literal number of hours being worked per week, but even more so it involves the person’s attitude about work and the work pattern that is displayed over time. The key word is “pattern.” Is there a workaholic pattern present as evidenced by the quantity of hours on the job, the specific beliefs (or attitude) about work, and the existence of the behavior over a long period of time? It is certainly possible that an individual could work an excessive number of hours over a short period of time and not be a workaholic. For example, in his young-adult years John took a second job and for several months the quantity of work was excessive. However, his purpose in the extra work was to pay off a medical debt left unresolved following the bankruptcy of his insurance carrier. He paid off the debt and then quit the second job. John’s “excessive” work was a matter of necessity rather than preference. In contrast, the workaholic’s decision to work excessively is a matter of preference and not an actual necessity, although he usually convinces himself that he “has” to work to “make ends meet” or to fulfill another “necessary” purpose. With these descriptions in mind we need to show caution in labeling someone as a “workaholic” and make sure we understand the underlying attitude and the correct history that are involved.

Why does a person become a workaholic and what are the forces that maintain the workaholic pattern? This question is important and certainly merits our attention. The pattern could originate in childhood in that the individual is imitating parental behavior, following parental advice, or is reacting against perceived parental misbehavior. For example, William recalled that his father gave him a bit of advice when he (the son) began his first job in a grocery store. The father recommended “Never let anyone see you not working. Be sure you are always busy doing something.” The teenager took this message to heart and became an employee whose hard work was highly valued by the store owner. However, William personalized the advice and believed that he had to be “productive” and “at work” all the time. By the time he reached young adulthood he could not give himself permission to relax or play because those activities were not productive. If he watched a television program, he had to be doing something at the same time (such as paying bills or studying a book) so he could feel productive. Clearly, William was on the entrance ramp to the Workaholism Highway. Thankfully, he recognized the unhealthy tendencies and through redefining his definition of “productive” gave himself inner permission to relax and rest.

Regardless of its origin the workaholic lifestyle can be maintained throughout life, even though the pattern might wax and wane in its intensity. An exploration into the forces that maintain the pattern usually reveals several interesting possibilities. I think of these forces as the “wheels” that keep the workaholic rolling along the Workaholism Highway. Let’s look at seven of these “wheels.”

Wheel #1:  Achievement

One “wheel” that maintains workaholism is the desire to achieve. Fueled by intense “I want” motivations, the workaholic is determined to achieve goals that are important to him, such as wealth, power, status, recognition, approval, or acceptance. Unfortunately, the initial desire turns into a personal greed that is never fully satisfied, regardless of the level of goal fulfillment. Thus, the workaholic continues on a quest that is never-ending and never-satisfied. The “wheels” turn as increased frustration generates additional labor because the workaholic’s solution is simply “more work” and “harder work.”
Wheel #2:  Competition

A second “wheel” that maintains the workaholic pattern could be competition. The individual develops a belief that he must be better than someone else or must do more than another person. That person might be a parent or a sibling against whom the workaholic is competing. The workaholic might determine “I have to be better than my father. I’ll show him.” This competitive struggle will reveal who is better or smarter or stronger—the parent or the child. Through this competition the workaholic gets personal satisfaction from his labor, and the satisfaction maintains the workaholism pattern.
Wheel #3:  Escape

The urge to escape is a third “wheel” that promotes workaholism. Most of us like to escape occasionally from a particular stress, but our escape is in the form of a short holiday or brief vacation. The workaholic uses a job as his primary and long-term escape. He buries himself in the job to such an extent that he has no time to think about the outside stressor and he doesn’t have to deal with an unpleasant external situation. For example, Patrick chooses to be at work over spending time with his wife who abuses alcohol on a nightly basis. He uses work to avoid the anger and abuse she typically hurls at him when he is at home. Predictably, she intensifies her anger and increases the abuse because his choice of work instead of time with her feels to her like rejection and abandonment. Another example of the “escape” motive could be Jennifer, a middle-aged single lady who cannot cope with the loneliness she feels when at her apartment. She prefers to work overtime and even on weekends instead of suffering at home with the loneliness of her single lifestyle.
Wheel #4:  Perfectionism

The workaholic lifestyle could also be promoted by perfectionism. Peter is a perfectionistic individual who will not stop until a job has been completed to his personal standards which are excessively high and usually unattainable. He cannot feel satisfied with anything less than perfection, and his desire for perfection often drives him toward a work style that is clearly workaholic. Until he transforms his perfectionistic beliefs into healthier beliefs Peter will probably continue his travels along the Workaholism Highway.
Wheel #5:  Conscience

For some workaholics the desire to work is based upon underlying issues of conscience. Essentially, the conscience-driven workaholic learned a work ethic that was extreme and excessive, yet he accepted the ethic as a moral standard against which he judges his effort. If his work is not consistent with that ethic he feels guilty and ashamed. Let’s recall William and his struggle with the word “productive.” For him any activity that was not seen as productive was automatically a serious violation of his work ethic. Engaging in “unproductive” activities always evoked intense feelings of guilt. Before he could exit his Workaholism Highway William had to redefine his basic definition of “productiveness” to include rest and relaxation. Likewise, the conscience-driven workaholic needs to explore his excessive moral standards that relate to work and productivity and make whatever revisions are necessary for a healthier lifestyle.
Wheel #6:  Fear

Another “wheel” that drives workaholism is fear. For many people fear is a powerful force that feeds and fuels an excessive commitment to work. The variations are manifold: fears of failure, fears of loss, fears of the future, fears of not being prepared, fears of not having enough, and so forth. David is an example of a fear-driven workaholic. He cannot forget his childhood struggles with inadequate food and inappropriate housing. His father was an irresponsible, lazy man who drifted from job to job with long periods of unemployment. Uneducated and unskilled, his mother was unable to provide money for the family and she was unwilling to confront her husband’s irresponsible lifestyle. These early years of uncertainty created in David a commitment to work hard so that he would always have enough for personal survival and security. He internalized that commitment to such an extent that he entered the Workaholism Highway by age nineteen, and he never looked back. Any thought of an exit from that highway was quickly extinguished by the fears recalled from childhood.

Another example is Richard, a forty-year-old engineer whose workaholic lifestyle is driven by fears of ridicule and rejection. As a child he was the target of frequent teasing and bullying at school because his clothing and behavior reflected his low-income social status. His tattered clothes and his need for free lunches invited rejection from his middle-class schoolmates. In spite of his financial poverty Richard was blessed with a sharp mind and a love for learning. His determination to succeed in life pushed him toward academic achievement and, ultimately, a college degree. However, his fears of ridicule and rejection continued to haunt him, and they fueled his growing preoccupation with work. He believed that hard work would pay off for him so that he would never be laughed at again. Regrettably, Richard’s unresolved fears prevented an exit from the Workaholism Highway.

Like David and Richard, many individuals begin and continue their workaholic pattern as their way of reacting to or coping with deep-seated fear. Until those fears are explored and extinguished these men and women will probably maintain their work-centered lifestyle.
Wheel #7:  Addiction

For some people travel along the Workaholism Highway is maintained by an addictive personality. These individuals tend to go to extremes in whatever activity they start. An addictive personality looks for an activity in which excessiveness can be expressed, and the work site provides an open invitation to that addiction.  Workaholism is sometimes connected to chemical dependency. A person might stop his alcohol or drug addiction but fail to pursue a solid recovery program. Technically, he might be sober but he continues to think and live as an addict. Without recovery he is prone to substitute another addiction for the alcohol and drugs. A tempting substitute could be work, and the addict soon has a new addiction—workaholism! Without doubt an addictive personality is a powerful contributor to a workaholic lifestyle.

The seven “wheels” described above are common causes and maintainers of the unhealthy pattern of workaholism. For some workaholics more than one “wheel” may be present and active at any given time. Additional factors may be involved, and they should also be considered by the individual who wants to exit the Workaholism Highway.

Wages of Workaholism

Our brief exploration of workaholism needs to include an overview of the wages—or the price tag—of the workaholic lifestyle. Most people work at a job for wages, and their salary is often an important incentive for consistent labor. The workaholic pattern often increases a person’s wage-earning simply because of the excessive number of hours usually worked. Other rewards like financial bonuses and public recognition are viewed as positive wages. However, the pattern also pays other “wages” in the form of negative consequences that are detrimental to both personal and relationship health.

The workaholic lifestyle usually generates a high level of inner stress that over time becomes a serious threat to one’s personal health and well-being. Collapses and breakdowns occur to the workaholic individual simply because the mind and body are not designed for the excessive stress. The inevitable fatigue that results will affect multiple dimensions of the individual’s life, including his physical, mental, and emotional well-being. The continual stress increases the person’s vulnerability for heart attacks, strokes, and other significant health problems. Eventually the mind and body become exhausted and the workaholic could experience a major “burn out” or a “numb out” consequence. In that “burned out” state the workaholic is highly vulnerable to extramarital affairs, chemical addictions, and other inappropriate behavior that he thinks might help him cope with his inner emptiness and numbness.

Furthermore, workaholism usually leads to serious relationship problems including collisions and break-ups. The preoccupation with work leaves very little time and energy for relationships like marriage. The employee cannot fulfill the role of husband and father at home if there is nothing left in his “fuel tank” after his long hours at work. Spouses often engage in repetitive conflict over the workaholic’s preoccupation with a job. The wife of a workaholic often feels abandoned and rejected as she realizes that she is not her husband’s first love or top priority. For example, Jennifer disclosed that her husband was having an affair and her explanation was quite interesting. “The other woman is his job. He’s having an affair with work. And I can’t compete with his job.” If Jennifer heard her husband singing the lyrics of Willie Nelson’s popular song, “You’re always on my Mind,” she would assume that she is not the object of his thoughts. Rather, his mind is focused on his job. For the devoted workaholic the loss of family relationships and personal friendships is usually a fact of life. This tragic loss of relationships is a key component in the negative wages of workaholism.

Without doubt there may be some possible positive benefits to a workaholic lifestyle (such as more money), but the negative wages represent a major threat to both individual and relationship health. My recent ponderings about this threatening lifestyle led to the following poem.
               My work is never finished
               With quotas not diminished;
               To meet my goals I’m driven
               And many hours are given;
               No place for spouse or neighbor
               For time is meant for labor.
               I have to be productive
               So play is interruptive;
               Relaxing is rejected
               And rest is not selected;
               There is no fun and frolic
               For me—the workaholic!
                                                -- Dr. Bill Baker (2012)

Withdrawals from Workaholism
“How do I withdraw from my workaholic lifestyle?”  That question is the same as “How do I exit from the Workaholism Highway?” Withdrawing (or exiting) from workaholism is indeed a goal worth pursuing, regardless of your age when you make that choice. Successful withdrawal will take time and effort, but the future benefits certainly will outweigh the difficulties. Professional therapy and self-help books can be useful resources as you work through the withdrawal process and move toward a balanced lifestyle. If you’ve been traveling the Workaholism Highway for many years and cannot seem to break free from the “ruts” of the workaholic pattern, therapy could be especially helpful to you.

Your withdrawal effort could begin with an examination of the reasons why you are a workaholic. A review of the seven “wheels” described earlier will help you to identify the specific causes for your workaholic pattern. That insight will enable you to begin a transformation of your basic beliefs about work and productivity. You might want to imitate William, the man we described earlier, in that you’ll redefine the word “productivity” to include rest and relaxation. Your personal transformation needs to include a careful assessment of your basic beliefs about work followed by redefinitions and revisions of those beliefs that are unhealthy and inappropriate. The new beliefs you construct will require months of daily attention before your revised belief system is securely in place.

As you put your new beliefs into action you will no doubt experience some inner discomfort with your new lifestyle. As you “stretch your comfort zone” to include time for non-work activities you’ll have to focus on your new beliefs and the benefits they will add to your life. You’ll give yourself permission to “take care of yourself” in a healthy, appropriate manner. Imagine that you are the automobile that you drive on a daily basis. You value your car and understand the importance of regular maintenance. So you get the oil changed and tires rotated, and you service the transmission as needed. You check the hoses and the antifreeze to make sure that your car is serviced and safeguarded. You keep an eye on the fuel gauge and you pump in more gasoline as needed. You take care of your car. The point is that you are of greater value than your automobile, and you need to take good care of yourself. This self-caring behavior is not selfishness; instead, it is the action of good personal stewardship.

Healthy self-caring involves a balanced lifestyle of work and rest combined with other helpful activities like exercise and fun. The importance of regular rest has become more real to me with each additional year that passes so quickly. Now I take notice of the “rest stops” along life’s interstate highway, and I give myself permission to “take a break” for refreshment and renewal. I remind myself more often that there is a time to work but there is also a time to rest. Wise stewardship means that appropriate rest is inherently productive and necessary to a healthy lifestyle. Regular rest stops will renew us and allow us to travel more safely along the highway of life. As an acronym the word “R.E.S.T” reminds us that “Rest Enables Safer Travels.”

Your exit from the Workaholism Highway can be facilitated by numerous factors, including spiritual values. Recently, in describing his withdrawal from workaholism, a Christian man mentioned a scripture that had been very helpful to him—Mark 6:31. He explained that in the described situation Jesus’ apostles had just returned from an exhausting journey of teaching and healing. They were telling Jesus about their work when crowds of people showed up requesting help and healing. Immediately the apostles began attending to their needs. At some point Jesus intervened and pulled the apostles away from the people, saying “Come apart and rest.” Clearly, he recognized their need for rest and stopped their current efforts to help people. He understood that there was a time to work—and a time to rest, even when his apostles were engaged in a good activity. This same Christian man shared an additional comment about Mark’s description:  “Jesus told his apostles to come apart and rest; too often we just come apart.” In considering this gentleman’s comments we need to understand and remember a simple but significant fact: if we fail to get the rest we need we will eventually come apart! 

This same Christian man also reported that he had learned the importance of setting and enforcing personal boundaries about rest and relaxation. For example, he would block out a period of time, perhaps an evening, for the specific purpose of relaxation. He considered that time as a “committed appointment” and would safeguard it from intrusions and interruptions. Except for legitimate emergencies he would say “no” to inquiries and invitations that would steal his time of rest. According to him, the practice of personal stewardship required the usage of healthy boundaries. I admired this man’s wisdom in using appropriate self-caring and personal stewardship to prevent a return to workaholism.

Concluding Thoughts . . .

The road sign for the workaholic man or woman is clear: there is a “rest area” ahead. However, access to the rest area requires an exit from the current Workaholism Highway onto a better and safer roadway. The development of a balanced lifestyle provides time for work and time for rest. Once in place this personal stewardship will promote health and peace in both the individual and in his relationships.

I compliment you if you are currently in a recovery mode from a workaholic lifestyle. The new highway on which you’re traveling in life will seem uncertain and uncomfortable at times, but persistent effort will sustain your journey and will move you toward a better destination.

As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.

Disclaimer:  The people mentioned in this article are not specific people. They are representative of people who struggle with various features of workaholism.

VIDEO:  To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses workaholism please click on the image to the right or click here. 

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



         (Mental Health Blog #1315)


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