Want a challenge? Try spotting a workaholic in Silicon Valley. The Valley, for better or worse, prides itself on its high pressure, high intensity work environment. Whether your talking about startups or tech titans like Google, Apple or Facebook, it’s not uncommon for people to put in 60-80 hour work weeks. With the advent of our “always on” culture where people are on their smartphones, tablets or laptops 24/7, we pride ourselves on being always available and productive.

But in society where we pride ourselves on hard work, when does “always on” become too much? When do we cross the line between ambition and productivity to obsession and addiction?

Many of us think of “addicts” as drug addicts, alcoholics, gamblers or sex addicts. We think of people who have no control over their impulses; Who are slaves to their desires; Who engage in high risk pursuits of pleasure that turn into full blown obsessions. We never think it could happen to us. Working in the tech mecca of the world we see ourselves as too smart, too safe, too sheltered. We don’t really gamble (unless you call buying Bitcoin gambling), we drink in relative moderation, avoid drugs (except one-too-many trips to Starbucks) and we have little or no sex because we’re too busy working (only half joking here).

The Addiction of Work

Wikipedia defines addiction as: “… a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences.”

An addiction to work or workaholism is no different. A person who’s a workaholic works compulsively and workaholism is usually defined as a psychological disorder. Like most addictions, workaholics work to feed a need or get a “high”. In some cases it might be the success that they achieve. The more success we find, the better we feel good and the more recognition we get. That fuels the need to work even more. In other cases, we might work compulsively as a way of avoiding personal problems such as a fractured marriage or a sick child at home. Regardless of the “high” we get, as we work more, work eventually begins to eat into other parts of our lives: Weekends, evenings, family time and time with friends. As in any addiction, extreme cases of workaholism usually have adverse consequences: We gain weight because we cease to exercise or eat the wrong foods; We feel isolated because our friends stop calling us; Our relationships go down the toilet since we don’t invest the time to talk things through when we hit relationship speed bumps.

The point is simple: Workaholism is a real addiction and like any addiction it can have lasting mental and even physical consequences. (Tweet this)

The Signs

The biggest problem with addictions is that generally the addict doesn’t recognize that he or she is an addict. They view their behavior as normal. “Everyone works hard.” “Everyone works evenings.” American culture makes this even more challenging when you consider the statistics. In a survey in Vanity Fair 60% of respondents said that monitoring work email outside of office hours was normal and more than 70% of respondents under 30 were OK with dealing with work-related issues outside of the office. A study in 2011 concluded that roughly 10% of the American workforce are workaholics and that among these addicts, a further 20% suffered from additional addictions (such as drug or sex addiction). Generally, workaholics exhibit several of the following symptoms:

  • You work to avoid serious personal issues like divorce, illness or financial issues

  • You routinely forego sleep to engage in work projects or finish tasks

  • You obsess with work-related success

  • You have an intense fear of failure at work

  • You obsess over work-related performance (and even think about it outside work)

  • Your personal relationships suffer due to the amount of time spent working

  • You get defensive or even angry toward others about their work

  • You work as a way to avoid relationships

  • You work to cope with feelings of guilt or depression

  • You constantly think about ways to find additional hours in the day to work

  • You routinely put far more hours at work then you need to

  • You get told by others to ease up on your work habits and but ignore them

If you’re unsure whether you’re a workaholic, Workaholics Anonymous has 20 questions you can ask yourself to find out (Tweet This) (if you answer yes to more than 3-4 of them you’re now a proud member of the club). Here are a few:

  1. Are you more drawn to your work or activity than close relationships, rest, etc.?

  2. Are there times when you are motivated and push through tasks when you don’t even want to and other times when you procrastinate and avoid them when you would prefer to get things done?

  3. Do you take work with you to bed? On weekends? On vacation?

  4. Are you more comfortable talking about your work than other topics?

  5. Do you pull all-nighters?

  6. Do you resent your work or the people at your workplace for imposing so many pressures on you?

  7. Do you avoid intimacy with others and/or yourself?

  8. Do you resist rest when tired and use stimulants to stay awake longer?

  9. Do you take on extra work or volunteer commitments because you are concerned that things won’t otherwise get done?

  10. Do you regularly underestimate how long something will take and then rush to complete it?

    For the full list of questions click here.

Risk Factors

Certain people people are more at risk of becoming workaholics than others. According to the research I’ve seen and several articles on the subject, you’re more at risk of becoming a workaholic if:

1. You have a certain personality type or personality disorder. For example, people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to be workaholics. Likewise, people who are perfectionists have a greater risk to succumb to the addiction as well.

2. Your parents were workaholics. If one or both of your parents spent long nights or weekends working, the changes are greater you’ll emulate their behavior and simply see this behavior as normal.

3. You work in a particular field. High pressure, highly competitive environments (investment banking, consulting, fast moving technology industries) or work that requires a significant amount of detail and man hours may increase your chances of becoming a workaholic. According to Addiction.com, a 2012 study of 9,160 Dutch workers found that workaholism was more prevalent in certain fields, including agriculture, construction, commercial trade, communication and consulting.

4. Unsurprisingly, age also plays a factor. People between the ages of 18-45 have a higher chance of being addicts. Younger people have less commitments, might be single and have no kids so they naturally tend to spend more hours working. In addition, during that period of our lives, we’re also more likely to prioritize work as a way of advancing our careers, gaining status and recognition and as a way to advance our own financial well being and buy more “stuff” (which we may or may not need).

How to cope

Fortunately, like any addiction, there are proven ways to cope. How do I know? Well, as they say, “it takes one to know one.” For one you can seek help through therapists, friends and family. If you feel your situation is particularly acute, seeing a therapist might b a good idea. This might be especially the case if your work addiction is due to OCD or some other disorder.

I mentioned Workaholics Anonymous above and I can vouch for the effectiveness of working with a group of individuals who share a similar problem and following a 12-step program. It’s really effective. Regular meetings allow you to socialize with people who can relate to your challenges and can share their experiences with you. This is incredibly helpful and really helps you realize that you’re not the only one with this problem. You’ll feel relief and comfort from hearing other people’s stories. More importantly, you’ll realize that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how far you’ve fallen, there is hope. In addition, the tools these groups provide are invaluable. You might not always be able to make a meeting but having someone to call and having exercises and literature to read on your own can be a real lifesaver.

Another thing I’ve seen, is people take sabbaticals from work. Not a holiday: A sabbatical or leave of absence. If you’re able to negotiate paid leave from your job for a few weeks or even a few months, this often can provide you with a chance to reassess your often situation, get help and see “the forest through the trees.” I’ve seen a number of people actually decide to leave their jobs or embark on complete career changes following a leave of absence. A sabbatical can also help you come to grips with what really matters in your life and decide to prioritize your work differently.

Last but not least is the hardest of them all: A career change. I’ve written extensively about my own journey, fall from grace and career change in one of my previous posts. For many this is a change of last resort. This is when you hit rock bottom and you wake up one day and you say: “That’s it. I’ve had enough No more. I’ve lost too damn much and need to make a change.” At this point the pain (emotional or otherwise) may have become too much. This if often also when you may realize you can’t simply fix this one by yourself and finally reach out for help. Whether it’s your family, a therapist, a group or a career coach, this kind of change takes time, patience and self discipline but it is doable and I’ve seen, both in myself and in others, amazing things happen as a result. Though this change is painful, it’s also incredibly liberating. Once you finally make the decision to make a drastic change and put yourself in a position where there is no way back, you suddenly begin to look at life through a whole other perspective. For me there were two instances where the magnitude of the change I was making really struck home: First, when a friend called to offer me another chief marketing officer job in a really high profile startup and I declined. Hearing myself saying “I’m done. I don’t do this type of work anymore” was surreal and liberating. Second, when I finally signed up to get my coaching certification I realized I was truly closing the book on the first half of my career and turning over a new page.

For all of us, work occupies a major, central part of our lives. We spend the majority of our waking hours at work. It provides food for our families and a roof over our heads. It brings us joy and frustration. It creates opportunities for learning and for recognition. In many cases, it even helps us create the social circles which form a core part of our lives. But when it becomes an obsession, threatens our health, ruins our marriages or drives us away from those we love that’s when we have ask ourselves: “What do we really want? Is this really worth it? Is this promotion, business deal or sale going to do damage that I might regret for years or decades to come?”

The first step in treating any addiction, is realizing that we have one. From there it’s only a question of reaching out and asking for a helping hand. There are many others who suffer due to workaholism, but together we can beat our addiction, re-establish love and balance in our lives and embrace a brand new day.


Chief Storyteller