Are You Really A Workaholic?

Why some hardworking, well-adjusted folks are degraded for their good work

Posted Sep 21, 2013

The term “workaholic,” like its alleged analog, “alcoholic,” has negative emotive connotations. Indeed most people do not want to be so labeled; for to be a workaholic, like being an alcoholic, is deemed to be disordered, ill, or socially and/or personally irresponsible. Like the alcoholic, to be a workaholic carries the connotation of being neglectful of one’s other responsibilities such as family and friends. It suggests a kind of mental illness, an addiction that you are unable to control but which controls you.  Like a drug, one’s work habits are perceived to be detrimental to one’s wellbeing.

The term is ordinarily applied to people who work long hours even though they do not need to.  For example, these people choose to work long hours even though they could still earn a satisfactory living, keep their jobs, or otherwise get by without putting in nearly as many hours as they do.  Unfortunately, many people in this group do not satisfy the negative characterization attached to this term.  That is, their work habits are not really disordered, ill, or irresponsible.   To the contrary, they value their work for what they perceive to be its inestimable importance, for example, a journalist’s dedication to keeping the public informed; a medical researcher’s persistence in trying to finding a cure for a fatal disease; a writer’s devotion to enlightening others; a psychologist's commitment to helping her clients work through their problems; an artist’s or musician’s museful drive for artistic expression; a teachers steadfastness to her students' success; a businessperson's unwavering quest to provide quality customer service.  For such individuals, work is not merely a distraction from problems in their lives; instead it exemplifies the moral principles and social values that define them as persons.  Thus the label of “workaholic” is not only inappropriately applied to this group; it also represents a deep and all-pervasive degradation of their personhood.

This is not to say that work, like any other activity, cannot be used as an escape from confronting life issues or unhealthfully excessive. Thus, the person who has recently been divorced and throws himself into his work in order to avoid working through the loss can be a dysfunctional work situation.  But, not all people who work longer than they are required use work as such an unhealthy escape mechanism; or make themselves sick by working long hours; or neglect their other responsibilities.  Hence, it is unfortunate that these individuals are also unfairly categorized along with certain others who truly are dysfunctional.  

The emotive force of the term, “workaholic” is, in fact, often used to poison the well against working long hours and to try to intimidate the individual in question into stopping.  (Compare, “Anyone who opposes the war is unpatriotic.”) In this way, a significant number of highly responsible and well-adjusted people may be intimidated into thinking that there might be something seriously wrong with them. 

So how do you know if your work habits are really dysfunctional?  The following are some guides that can help you determine if your work habits should change:

  1. Are you finding your work to be self-actualizing or personally fulfilling in a constructive way, for example, helping you to grow intellectually, emotionally, professionally, morally, or spiritually?
  2. Are you tolerating the long work hours without suffering serious, work-related health impairments or substantial, ongoing, emotional stress and strain?
  3. Are you able to turn off thinking about work in order to get an adequate amount of sleep?
  4. Are you able to make time in your personal life to spend significant, quality time with family and friends?
  5. Are you able to competently handle the other areas of your personal life (paying bills, chores, personal hygiene, etc.)?

Each of these questions addresses a major area of human functionality, namely, a sense of fulfillment or self-actualization, physical and mental health and wellbeing, and personal/social responsibility. It should be emphasized, however, that these standards of functionality cannot rationally be expected to be satisfied perfectly.  Thus, for example, none of us can rationally expect to perfectly balance our work life with our private life.  And, sometimes we may find ourselves spending a sleepless night over a work-related problem.  But these occasions should be exceptions, not the rule.  It should also be mentioned that acceptable workloads can vary with individuals.  Thus some people have more physical and mental stamina to work longer hours than do others.  Further, the satisfaction of the above standards is not a matter of “all or nothing.”  Thus one can stand for some improvement in accomplishing 4 or 5, but still be passable.  In such cases, an individual can try harder to balance competing interests in order to get closer to the Aristotelian “mean” between excess and deficiency.  This may involve cutting back on hours spent at work, but it need not.  Sometimes better time management may help.

So, if you work long hours but really don’t need to (at least from the perspective of others), how do you know if you are really a “workaholic”? 

 If you tend to feel relatively unfulfilled by the work you do; feel depressed, anxious, or otherwise upset over work-related matters; restlessly ruminate about work instead of falling sleep; find yourself unable to function satisfactorily in your personal life; or, if you are having significant relationship problems related to your work schedule, then you should consider your underlying motivation.  Are you using work to avoid some other aspect of your life that you have not satisfactorily addressed? Are you motivated by irrational thinking, for example, telling yourself that you are a worthy person only if you are working? Like the alcohol, not in recovery, are you in denial?

Ask yourself the above five questions.  If you cannot honestly answer all of them in the affirmative, there is probably a rational (although not necessarily conclusive) argument for reducing your work hours.  On the other hand, if you can dispassionately say that you do a reasonable (albeit not a perfect) job in satisfying all five of the above standards, then it is probably consistent with your future happiness to continue working as you do—even if someone familiar with your work habits happens to call you a "workaholic."