work addiction

Work Addiction Isn’t About The Money

Are you a workaholic? And if you answer “yes,” are you bragging or complaining? Workaholism is incentivized in our society. You get salary increases, promotions, and praise for your productivity. Hard workers are admired in our culture.

If you are an employer, would you rather hire someone who is a workaholic or someone who is not? I can’t help but think there’s a part of every business owner that is really pleased to hire a workaholic because their productivity is good for the company’s bottom line, at least in the short term. However, an employer who really understands workaholism will want to hire the non-workaholic because of the long-term costs from the inevitable burnout and the relationship issues.

Workaholism is a significant problematic money behavior. To be clear, loving your work or spending a lot of time working does not automatically mean you’re a workaholic. Yet in its pure form workaholism is an insidious addiction. And, like other problematic money-related behaviors, it is not about the money.

Some of the signs of workaholism are not taking vacations or being unable to stop working while on vacation, checking emails at all hours, routinely arriving early and staying late, habitually working through lunch, chronic anxiety about work, and having family and friends complain that you put work ahead of personal life. This last one is especially important as a warning sign. When an activity starts interfering with relationships is when it’s leaning into being an addiction.

Workaholism is my own drug of choice, and while I have made a lot of progress, I still remain open to considering how recovered I really am. And I have a lot of company, because workaholism is pretty common.

The amount of money someone earns has nothing to do with whether they’re a workaholic. Certainly, one consequence of workaholism often is an increase in income. But a person can be a workaholic whether they are a CEO of a big corporation or an unpaid volunteer in a non-profit organization. The money really isn’t the issue. The issue is that when a workaholic is under stress, especially financial stress, their automatic solution is to work more, just as an alcoholic’s solution to stress is drink.

Workaholics use work as their drug of choice to medicate and suppress feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacy, and other emotional pain. They get a high from working, which medicates and pushes away the stress that usually involves difficult emotions. But just as with any other addiction, the high does not last. Someone can only work for so long. They can often become irritable and can eventually crash from exhaustion. With the medication of work, the suppressed emotions such as anxiety and depression start to bubble up.

Workaholics often end up feeling resentful and unappreciated because they give so much to their workplace. This could stem from a need for belonging or being seen. If someone holds a money script of, “If you work hard enough, you will be seen,” and they are not seen even when they work harder, this causes even more emotional pain.

Of course, the solution to more emotional pain is more work, which feeds a vicious circle.

Workaholics report less satisfaction in their relationships with friends, family, and their community than a control group of non-workaholics. They report more work-life conflict, more work stress, more life dissatisfaction, and a lower sense of purpose. Ironically, they also report lower job satisfaction, even though work is where they feel most comfortable. This may be related to feeling competent, in control, and well-regarded at work.

Addiction to work can have serious detrimental effects on someone’s health, personal growth, and relationships. A large factor in the ending of my first marriage was my workaholism.

What underlies workaholism? Emotional wounding. We have parts of us that feel driven to work because of some type of trauma or wounding at a young age that has not been resolved. This often stems from some type of physical or emotional abuse or neglect. Gabor Maté,  author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, affirms this link between trauma and addiction, saying that a hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors.

It’s impossible to understand workaholism without asking what relief the work addict finds or hopes to find in work. If you are addicted to work, you have to look deeply to really get to know yourself and to understand your addiction. There are parts of you that are wounded by unfortunate life experience, parts that could be jealous, vindictive, or selfish. They could be deeply hurt, they could be scared to death, they could be very sad. These are the parts that work addiction is protecting, the parts that we need to uncover within ourselves and come to understand.

At the same time, we can come to understand that our true selves are compassionate, courageous, and confident. What I want you to know is that if you are a workaholic, it doesn’t have to remain this way for you. You are not terminal. You were not born a work addict. You can absolutely change your trajectory and your life.

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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