No other addiction is so willingly adopted, rewarded and praised by society as the addiction to work. It can prove quite a complicated issue, as the individual may consider that the extra time working is because they are merely looking after their family and trying to meet all their needs. As children grow up, of course, their needs can get more and more expensive. What good, however, is a worn-out mother, father or partner? What good if the relationship breaks up? When did a bleeding ulcer become a sign of success? Is a seventy-hour working week a sign of efficiency?

The person could be too set in their ways to slow down, not secure enough in themselves to say no, and/or find it difficult to delegate or ask for help. Even Jesus Christ needed helpers and time away to rest and relax.

Workaholism, overwork or overdoing it is a big problem, nowhere more so than in Japan and other parts of Asia, where around 10,000 workers/year die from working 60-70 hour working weeks. This is known in Japan as Karoshi, meaning death from overwork.

Society measures us by what we do, rather than by who/how we are and what we believe. Our job is more important than our view on global warming for instance. Clearly some occupations are considered in a different class than others. Sadly, all this can lead us to believe that the predetermining factor to our sense of self-worth is measured by what we do. This can lead us to become detached from who we really are.

Other myths, which make it difficult to recognize that overdoing it or workaholism is a major problem in our society today are that:

  • overdoing it is a positive way of life
  • it is not physically or psychologically addictive
  • it is not harmful to health, physical or mental
  • that it is always caused by high pressure jobs or demanding family life of the 21st Century
  • that it is motivated by job loyalty or by our desire to provide a decent living for our family or to make a worthwhile contribution to society

It is important for us to understand however that workaholism is an addictive pattern like any other addiction. Some people get an adrenaline high from juggling four or five commitments, taking care of others or simply of being busy or of being the first person in the office in the morning or of being the last to leave in the evening. Maybe they think that this is what the company expects of them, sadly this is sometimes true. Common symptoms may also be forgetfulness or inattention, with awareness impaired by stress and fatigue.

So, what is behind this desire to push ourselves to the very limit, sometimes risking all we have - health, family, friends? The roots are common to all addictions: not within our fast culture; or the way we were brought up; not even within our boss; or our family. These things may contribute to and/or reward our self-destructive behaviour, but the cause lies deep within us. The roots are often in our, unfulfilled or unmet needs. The feeling within us is that we must achieve a certain standard, or amount of work before we can become accepted as a person. The belief is that we are of little worth as we are, on our own. Taking the responsibility ourselves, not leaving it with others, and finding out what is pushing us gives us the tools to change. We may have feelings of low self-esteem, or of inadequacy, believing nothing we ever do will be good enough, the result is that we keep striving, trying to do more and better. Work may also provide us with temporary relief from pain from a broken relationship, for example, or from boredom or guilt or many other feelings we may want to avoid.

Are you a workaholic? The following test was devised by B. Robinson to help you evaluate.

Score: 1 = never true; 2 = sometimes true; 3 = often true; 4 = always true. Total up your score, then look at the scale below.

Work Addiction Risk Test

  1. I prefer to do things myself rather than ask for help
  2. I get very impatient when I have to wait for other people, or am in slow moving queues
  3. I seem to be in a hurry and racing against the clock
  4. I get irritated when I am interrupted while I am in the middle of something
  5. I stay busy and keep many 'irons in the fire'
  6. I find myself doing two or three things at once, such as eating and writing a memo
  7. I over commit myself by biting off more than I can chew
  8. I feel guilty when I am not working on something
  9. It is important that I see the concrete results of what I do
  10. I am more interested in the final results of my work than in the process
  11. Things just never seem to move fast enough or get done fast enough for me
  12. I lose my temper when things don't go my way or work out to suit me
  13. I ask the same question, without realizing it after I have already been given the answer
  14. I spend a lot of time planning and thinking about future events, forgetting the here and now
  15. I find myself continuing to work after my co-workers have finished
  16. I get angry when people do not meet my standards of perfection
  17. I get upset when I am in situations where I cannot be in control
  18. I tend to put myself under pressure with self-imposed deadlines
  19. It is hard for me to relax when I am not working
  20. I spend more time working than on socializing, hobbies or leisure activities
  21. I dive into projects to get a head start before all the phases have been finalized
  22. I get upset with myself for making even the smallest mistake
  23. I put more thought, time and energy into my work than relationships with other people
  24. I forget, ignore, minimize family celebrations such as birthdays or holidays for example
  25. I make important decisions before I have all the facts and have thought them through

How did you do? If you scored:

  • 25 - 49 = You are not overdoing it
  • 50 - 69 = You are mildly overdoing it
  • 70 - 100 = You are highly overdoing it

The work addiction, like any of the other addictions is a difficult cycle to break. Like all the other addictions, however, it is possible. The first and most difficult step is acknowledging that we are responsible, and the problem is within us, which must be resolved.

Many people with a work addiction find help through 12-step groups and other therapy programs. Options for group therapy are available through organizations such as Workaholics Anonymous. This kind of program allows you to connect with other people going through similar struggles and provides a healthy source of support.

Work addiction can result from a coexisting mental health condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or bipolar disorder. The addiction could also cause mental health issues, such as depression.

For these reasons, it may be helpful to have a mental health assessment. A mental health expert can help design a treatment plan. The plan will address the addiction and any underlying problems. One-on-one therapy, and even medications, could help control impulses, anxiety, and stress.

The Bible has much to say on addiction to work (for our own good). For instance:

'Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.'

Proverbs 23 v 4 & 5. New International Version. By permission.

The implication here of course, like all addictions, is that we will never be completely satisfied and will always be wanting to earn more money to buy that special item, like a butterfly that we never can quite catch.

Wikipedia: Karoshi

BBC article

Bryan Robinson