Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

A Field Guide to the Workaholic

A workaholic will be on the ski slopes thinking about his desk. How to help a workaholic loosen up.

A Case Study

"The doctor will see you now."

"One sec," I said. "I need to get this last sentence down."I had begged for an appointment because a scratch on my chin had become much more than a scratch. The lower half of my face was swollen to twice its normal size. I'd spiked fevers off and on all weekend.

But in spite of the fact that I was borderline septic, I had turned the doctor's waiting room into a temporary office, spreading books, papers and interview notes across three chairs. When the doctor came in, he asked me what I was writing. "An article about workaholics," I said. He raised an eyebrow. The irony of the situation finally struck me. I put my pen down.

"Workaholics are out of balance," says Bryan E. Robinson, a therapist in Asheville, North Carolina, and author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. "They don't have many friends. They don't take care of themselves. They don't have any hobbies outside of the office. A hard worker will be at his desk, thinking about the ski slopes. A workaholic will be on the ski slopes thinking about his desk."

Natural Habitat: North America

Americans work almost 200 more hours every year than we did in 1970- that's about an extra month. According to Juliet B. Schor, an economist at Boston College in Massachusetts and author of the book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, putting in long hours isn't necessarily problematic. After all, the rewards of hard work-a fatter paycheck, bonus points with the boss, satisfaction from your accomplishments-abound. It's only when the daily grind eclipses other areas of your life that it's time to stop and rethink your schedule.

Paying attention to how you're feeling away from work may offer the best insight, says Robinson. On a scale from one to five, with five being most satisfied, rate your satisfaction with your family life, friendships, health and hobbies. If your total is less than 10 points, it might be time to cut back on work.

Early Life

Children of parents with emotional problems are often put on the path to workaholism when they must become responsible for their siblings, housework and sometimes even those checked-out parents. Kids learn that it's much easier to focus on tasks than to deal with painful feelings, a kind of avoidance that's often carried into adulthood—something Robinson is familiar with. After his father died when he was in college, he became obsessed with finishing three big papers rather than dealing with his grief. Workaholism, Robinson's research has shown, is closely correlated with an inability to be intimate, and many of his clients enter treatment because their close relationships are falling apart.

Regardless of what kind of home they grew up in, people who have certain personality traits-those who are rigid and perfectionistic or those who are born achievers-are more likely to morph into workaholics.

But while certain professions or environments may reward workaholism, a job can't turn a nonworkaholic into one, says Robinson. "That's like saying a liquor store creates alcoholics."

Varieties of the Species

After almost two decades of research, Robinson has identified different breeds of workaholics.

The All-or-Nothing Workaholic

He does things perfectly or not at all. He struggles to get started on projects for fear of not meeting his own impossible expectations. When he does get rolling, he binges to the point of exhaustion. Low self-esteem leads those who suffer from this style to worry compulsively about work, while blaming themselves constantly for not doing it.

The Relentless Workaholic

These types don't have problems getting started; it's the stopping they have trouble with. They can't say "no," set priorities or delegate responsibilities. They often work so quickly that they make careless mistakes.

The Savoring Workaholic

She obsesses over details to the point of paralysis. She hates letting projects go and so will often create additional work whenever she gets close to finishing a task. She tells herself that no one could do it as well as she could. "They think, 'If I don't do it, it won't be done right' or 'It won't have my mark,'" says Robinson.

The Endangered Office

Workaholics of all stripes are generally terrible team players, says Gayle Porter, a professor of management at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "They try to control other people, control information. They allow crisis situations to develop because it makes them look like a hero." The end result is that workaholics are often not getting much accomplished. That's why Porter thinks more bosses would do well to reward those who clock out at the end of the day. "The employee who wants to go home is the one who will be most efficient during the week, because she's protecting her time off."

Rein In Your Workaholism

Cut your electronic leashes.

Eat lunch out of the office without answering your cell phone. No laptops in bed or at the table. No e-mail on weekends.


Learn to decide what must come first-it's a way to recognize that some things in life simply are more important than others.

Tame Your To-Do List.

Set a cutoff for the number of tasks that can reasonably be accomplished in a day-no more than five. If a new task must be added, knock another off that demands equivalent time. And schedule in time for play.

Forced Resignation

Dire Circumstances can push even the most severe workaholic off the treadmill. The top two calls for reform are:

"You're Killing Yourself!"

Workaholism can contribute to an array of health problems; a life-threatening illness is what it takes for some to slow down.

"Dad, Can I Be a Client?"

When a child comes home with a drawing of her family that doesn't include her father, for example, he may finally alter his schedule.