The problem with Work Addiction

When work is the main source of self-esteem and self-worth, one is suffering from work addiction.
When work is the main source of self-esteem and self-worth, one is suffering from work addiction.

When we overwork we risk breaking down. According to a survey on work addiction by recruitment firm TMP Worldwide, approximately a third of Australian workers are addicted to their work. Typically, they arrive early, leave late and miss breaks. The survey found that many do it for recognition or in hope of receiving a promotion but most do it to catch up on work.

Celebrities are not immune. Some time ago, Mariah Carey had a very public breakdown from over work. Apparently she was working too hard on too many things. “She is a perfectionist and she wants to do everything herself,” said her cousin Shawn McDonald. Mariah isn’t the only person at risk of a breakdown from work addiction.

Why are so many people addicted to their work? What are the underlying reasons that make them risk their health and family life for work?

Work addiction isn’t fundamentally about money. Like most addictions, there are important needs being fulfilled by the addictive behaviour.

Underlying most work addiction is the need to feel worthy. The work addicted person gains a feeling of self-worth from the way they do their work. They have pride in doing a good job and they like being appreciated and promoted. Increased remuneration, while not the primary objective, can be a measure of self-worth.

Of course work pride is not only present in the work addicted. Many people are proud of doing a good job. It only becomes a problem when their feelings of self-worth are dependent on the job they do.

The work-addicted rely on their job to feel good about themselves. Their self-worth is based on what they do rather than who they are. Many work-addicted people impose very high and unrealistic standards on themselves. They are often perfectionists who want to control everything. And they must do an exceptional job. This creates much stress and they have to increase their work hours to get it all done and met their lofty expectations.

It is clear that this happened to Mariah Carey. Not only did she star in her film Wise Girls; she co-wrote, co-produced and performed the soundtrack. Then she whirled through a two-week tour of Europe to promote the CD.

Like most of the work addicted, her priorities were all mixed up. Her health and needs for regular relaxation were well down her list. She has discovered the hard way that she is, after all, only human. Fame and riches are no protection against work addiction.

Work addicts’ underlying feelings of inadequacy usually come from their childhood and adolescence. Their parents may have implied that children are only valuable if they are well behaved, studious or obedient. Their praise and affection has likely been conditional on observing positive behaviour in the child. Some may have been strict. critical or abusive.

Of course, most parents take this approach with loving intent. They want their children to get on in life and have encouraged them the in best way they know how. Unfortunately this can backfire. The child seems to over learn the message. Instead of having the confidence and presence that a internal sense of self-worth gives, the child feels they are only worthy of regard when succeeding.

So what is the cure for work addiction?

The deep feelings of inadequacy need to be addressed. The work addict cannot expect unconditional love from others. Unconditional love is a right of children, not adults. Work addicts need to love themselves unconditionally. That is true self-acceptance.

Self-acceptance doesn’t mean not striving to do a good job and it doesn’t mean not improving. All it means is that we accept that we are flawed human beings but loveable just the same.

Recovering from work addiction

  • Ask yourself why you work so hard. To each answer, ask “what does that give me?”
  • Think about your childhood. What behaviour was rewarded with love and affection?
  • What expectations did your parents have of you? How seriously did you try to meet them?
  • What are your expectations of yourself? Are your standards higher than your colleagues are?
  • Imagine you lost your job. How would you feel about yourself?
  • Admit that you have many human flaws.
  • Accept that doing a perfect job is impossible.
  • Value yourself for who you are not what you do. You deserve unconditional love and acceptance from yourself.

Duri’s Story

Duri is a sales manager with million dollar projections to meet. He worked long hours because he said he loves his job and needs a constant challenge. Recently, he found he could not relax. He withdrew at home and felt irritated by the demands of his young family. He alternated between depression and anxiety, and was disappointed that he couldn’t seem to communicate with his wife or enjoy his children.

Although he was snappy at home, he was very tolerant at work.

Duri immigrated to Australia when he was seven. As his parents spoke no English, they relied heavily on Duri to pay bills, negotiate with bureaucracies and manoeuvre through other day to day problems. Duri was well regarded for his efforts but he felt he never had much of a childhood. He was expected to behave as a young adult and didn’t feel loved just for being himself.

Duri explored why he made work, rather than his family, his number one priority. He realised that work gave him the same feelings of self-worth he received as a child for taking on responsibility. Take away work, and he was nothing. That’s why work was so important.

Duri began to reassess his relationship to work and started to build his self-regard from the inside. He realised that he had been a loveable little boy with or without all the responsibilities he took on. As Duri’s feelings of self-worth improved his obsession with work reduced. To his surprise, he actually made more sales being relaxed and working fewer hours. His increased self-worth seemed to make him more powerful and effective.