Unlike alcoholism, drug addiction, or hoarding, this addiction is not only almost impossible for an outsider to recognize, but it’s viewed by most of the population as being valuable, even, worthy of admiration. And it’s rewarded with praise, money, and a variety of other benefits.
There’s only one problem with it: it’s a killer. It’s been known to destroy health (physical and mental), well-being, pleasure, and relationships. It’s a four-letter word that rhymes with jerk. And starts with “w.”
The term “workaholic” refers to the tendency to be obsessed with or over-concerned about work to the degree that one invests so much time and effort working and/or thinking and talking about work that other important areas of life (like relationships) are neglected or impaired.
Like food addiction, workaholism isn’t something that we can just kick cold turkey or even gradually. Meeting our material and physical needs depends upon our ability to generate income, and for most of us, that involves work.
Although doing so isn’t easy, it is possible to quit drinking or quit taking drugs. We can’t, however, quit working — that is, unless we are independently wealthy, which most of us are not. And even if we are, work provides us with more than money.
For most of us, it gives our lives a sense of meaning, purpose, and usefulness that enhances our self-esteem and well-being. Having meaningful work is one of the best ways to diminish feelings of depression and minimize the likelihood of getting the blues in the future.
When too large a part of our motivation to work is driven by a desire to fill psychological needs, we can become blind to the degree to which we may be compromising or diminishing our overall quality of life in order to meet emotional needs.
There is a domain in our life that is more geared to the fulfillment of our emotional needs and that domain is, you guessed it, relationships.
Unfortunately, when much of our time, and energy is consumed with work, relationships often tend to be neglected, and consequently, we lose access to this very vital source of fulfillment. It’s ironic that in opting to overly invest in work, we lose touch with something potentially far more enriching.
Ironic but not surprising, since it’s human nature to choose commitments that we feel more skilled in over those in which we feel ourselves to be less competent.
Like many men, in my younger days, I was preoccupied with work, partly because with three young kids, I felt obligated to stay on track in regard to my work in order to keep the wolf away from the door.
I gave an increasing percentage of my time and energy to work, not just because I wanted to keep bringing home the bacon or in our case, the tofu (it was the 80s), but because work was something that I felt competent in, could do pretty well and got a lot of satisfaction from.
Parenting and husbanding, on the other hand, were far less fulfilling, kind of boring, and something that I felt myself to be inept at, so I opted to have my contribution to the family take the form of a paycheck, rather than more of my presence.
This decision led to predictable results: unhappy marital partner (Linda), unhappy kids, unhappy (self since it’s hard to be happy when those whom you love aren’t), and a hardcore work addiction which turned out to be about as difficult to kick as heroin.
As it turned out, I did go cold turkey and, fortunately, Linda was willing and able to trade roles and responsibilities with me while I got to find out first-hand what the saying “a woman’s (parent’s) work is never done” really means.
I got to see what I had been avoiding by feeding my addiction. In doing so, I got to really connect on a deep level with Linda, the kids, and myself. I also got to experience and appreciate what is involved in being a full-time child caregiver.
I saw that work, for me anyway, was a vacation by comparison. I became completely disabused of my illusion that the unpaid job that I had inside of the home side was a hell of a lot harder and more demanding than the paid job that I had outside of the home was easier than the work side.
On the plus side, I got to see how, in being home and spending more time with the kids, I found a different and more satisfying kind of fulfillment than the short-term bursts of ego-pleasure that I got from my outside job.
Leaving a job or trading roles isn’t an option for most of us these days.
We were a one-income family when I quit work and became a full-time householder for a year. That year was 1987 and things were different 30 years ago.
These days, two-income couples are the norm and most families can’t get by with just one. Consequently, the pressure to work hard and demonstrate one’s productivity and indispensability is strong.
Perhaps that is one of the factors that puts America at the bottom of the list of countries that provide paid vacations, which includes every developed nation except for the United States.
The U.S. is the only country that does not by law require employers to provide paid vacations. While 75 percent of American employees do receive some paid vacation time, they use only 51 percent of what is available, a smaller percentage than any other developed country.
The European Union requires all countries to provide a minimum of 20 paid vacation days annually, and some provide much more. France and Finland require at least 30. The average amount of vacation days received by Americans annually is 10.
Notably, according to a study conducted by the Families and Work Institute, “Having paid vacation time bodes well for personal health and well-being as well as job satisfaction and intent to stay in one’s job.”
It sounds like a win-win all around. So why aren’t we as individuals and as a society acting accordingly?
Good question. I’d love to answer it but I’ve got to get back to work.
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This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.