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What is Workaholism?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Workaholism is an unusual word. It can be used as a source of pride, to suggest someone who works too much, or to suggest an illness in which a person who may work compulsively and is unable to stop. A closely related term is ergomania, which can mean mania or obsession about work, and the Japanese refer to this condition as karoshi, and view it as essential negative that can lead to an early death.

The term workaholic precedes workaholism, and was likely coined in the 1960s by Dr. Richard Evans. It has become used more in the succeeding decades, but it’s still unclear in all circumstances whether the term is positive or negative. In its most negative sense, workaholism is viewed as a disease that may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. People literally can’t stop working, as somehow working is a compulsion, and there are numerous ways to treat this as a disease.

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One of the most common ways workaholism is addressed is through twelve step programs based on those created for alcoholism. In this view, too much work is seen as an addiction from which the worker in some way benefits at the same time he or she can destroy other aspects of life. One of the difficulties with treating the workaholic is that it’s impossible to stop work “cold-turkey” for most people. They still must work in order to make a living, so with sponsors in workaholics anonymous programs, people must decide what degree of work is reasonable, and what behaviors constitute workaholism. Other coping strategies could exist for this condition as disease including treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder with medication and therapy.

As viewed from the disease or compulsion perspective, it is certainly true that addiction to work can negatively affect many aspects of people’s personal lives. They may have next to no social life outside of the work environment. Other things in life like spousal relationships or parenting are neglected while the worker continues to work. The imbalance created can result in significant unhappiness for the workaholic and any family affected by workaholism. In response to this, there are even programs similar to Al-anon, which help family members of workaholics understand the condition and make decisions on how to cope with it.

In another view, workaholism can be seen as positive. The guy or gal who spends all their time at the office, always gets the sale, comes in on weekends, and is willing to sacrifice personal time may be viewed favorably by employers and envied by other employees. People who spend most time at work can have a high rate of success that helps them advance in their fields. They may boast of their workaholism as the key to being successful.

Yet there is something to the Japanese view of karoshi being problematic. Too much of any type of activity leads to imbalance in life, and working in highly stressful circumstances can result in shorter life span with especially greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Thus though working too much or compulsively may be a matter to a brag about, it can also contribute to a less balanced existence, and one in which the worker and his or her family becomes deeply disrupted or emotionally torn by the imbalance.

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