The Workaholics

The respectable addicts

The Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome: Chronic Fatigue

The role of chronic fatigue.

Dependent on others to affirm their self worth, workaholics suffer a crisis of confidence as the six escalating fears discussed in the previous blog, especially the fear of failure and increasing paranoia, cause anxiety levels to climb and eventually destabilize functioning.

Chronic fatigue occurs when both the mind and the body are drained of all energy by constant rushing and over-scheduling. The long excessive hours of work heighten stress levels, compounded by increasing emotional turmoil, self-doubt, and growing relationship problems. More frequent and crashing bouts of fatigue serve as a circuit breaker to immobilize the frenetic workaholic. Adrenalin, after all, was intended for emergency situations, for fight or flight.

As stress begins to take its toll, workaholics must rely on an adrenalin “fix” just to keep going. For awhile, caffeine stimulants do help them stay alert. Like alcoholics, however, a greater intake is necessary as periodic bouts of fatigue become more frequent and severe. Like a worn-out elastic that has lost its spring, the adrenalin system eventually crashes, and workaholics slip into a serious state of chronic fatigue.

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Their health eventually does break down. As Dr. Archibald Hart (1) warns, ongoing stress causes an enlargement of the adrenal cortex, a shrinking of important lymph nodes, and irritation in the stomach and intestines. There is an increase in the production of blood cholesterol, but a decrease in the ability of the body to remove it. Capillaries and other blood vessels shut down the blood supply to the heart muscle, blood has an increased tendency to clot, and deposits of plaque build up on the walls of the arteries. (p. 21)

The most common manifestation of this damage can be witnessed when a person becomes a “couch potato” who can fall asleep anywhere, any time, even in mid-sentence! This stressed out individual can stare unseeing at the TV for hours on end, or may escape to dens or bedrooms where no “performance” is expected.

However, such physical and emotional exhaustion can also be masked by hyperactivity or acute restlessness. Relaxation becomes impossible. Hyper types jump from one activity to the next, and often have trouble winding down at night. There is little awareness of how tired, cramped and tense they actually are. As a consequence, they continue to pump adrenalin to dangerous highs.

It is not surprising therefore that in the early 1980s, the Japanese named workaholism Karoshi - translated as death from overwork - and warned that it can be life-threatening, even fatal. The harmful influences of excessive fatigue and celebral/cardio diseases resulting in heart attacks and strokes were finally acknowledged. The Ministry was initially reluctant to grant compensation to the families of victims, but in 1995 and again in 2002 modified their overly strict rules about who was eligible. The Economist (2) in an article entitled “Overwork in Japan. Jobs for Life” reported that family members may receive approximately $20,000 from the government and sometimes up to $1 million from the company that employed them. It was hoped that the pressure on companies to treat free overtime that employees were obliged to perform as paid work “would send shockwaves through corporate Japan, where long, long hours are the norm.” The lesson here is a warning that chronic fatigue can be fatal. One questions whether that warning here in North America is being taken seriously enough by workaholics and the companies that employ them.

It is important to know that the chronic fatigue that signals mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion is but one of the symptoms of depression. Therefore watch for other symptoms such as changes in eating and sleeping patterns; poor concentration when attempting to focus; loss of motivation to work or play; crying spells; loss of libido, or an increase in sexual drive; depersonalization – distancing yourself from a problem, and not caring any more; irrational anger or cynicism; and a tendency to isolate yourself from family and friends.

Loss of memory and forgetfulness are severe problems for workaholics. The less they are capable or motivated, the more insecurity, low-self esteem, and self-doubt build. This downward spiral can be very fast especially when failure threatens or is exposed, or it can go on to become a habitual life-pattern of avoidance, of not taking responsibility for one’s actions and health.

Scattered attention and fatigue lead to inefficiency and to long hours spent doing what used to take far less time and energy. As fatigue worsens, workaholics tend to leave less visible boring and routine work undone, and spend precious energy struggling to do more attention getting, praise-worthy work. Eventually they have no time for co-workers and friends, if there are any outside of the workplace, and isolation and their alienation from others including their spouse and other family members further lessen support when it is most needed.

While chronic fatigue can become a symptom of the hopelessness that feeds depression, guilt for past insensitive deeds or callous indifference in personal relationships can also leave the workaholic feeling helpless and depressed. The role that guilt plays in the breakdown syndrome that workaholism typically follows will be the subject of my next blog.

(1)  Hart, A. The Hidden Link Between Adrenalin and Stress. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.

(2)  “Jobs for Life: Japanese Employees Are Working Themselves to Death.” The Economist, 19 December 2007.

See Website: www.drbarbarakillinger.com for my publications, and a link to this blog.

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Copyright 2012 – Dr. Barbara Killinger 

Barbara Killinger, Ph.D., was an author and clinical psychologist in Toronto who specialized in workaholism.

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