Working a lot is like suffering a perpetual hangover

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You work too much, live too little

Don Draper, a popular alcoholic workaholic

Workaholism is nothing like alcoholism, yet they are the same.

“A workaholic will die before an alcoholic.” — Burnout scholar Christina Maslach

Alcoholics are losers, workaholics are overachievers

Alcoholics and workaholics are nothing alike

A comparison in the perception of the two

We have a negative perception of alcoholics. Society sees them as either weak willed or sick with a disease. Their addiction is shameful so they hide it by drinking alone a lot. Some of the drinking is public, but only as much as the embarrassment that person can endure. Think of how you look at drunks. A mixture of pity and contempt. The general consensus is alcoholics are losers. In formal language this means we assign them low value in society.

Workaholics are at the opposite end of the perception spectrum. Overwork is often valued. People who work too much and are heavily involved in their work are called overachievers or type-A personalities. There are books and articles arguing that this is a prerequisite for success. It’s a badge of honor. Many people even signal overwork for the social value even though they don’t work a lot.

As a society we have started acknowledging burnout as a serious problem. It has a muddled perception. On one hand it comes from too much work. On the other hand, there is the suspicion that burnout happens to ‘weak people’. This is the assumption burnout is when you are not tough enough or driven enough to handle heavy workload. By contrast, we accept that hangovers happen to everyone.

‘It’s as if the workplace is an Ironman triathlon in pants.’ —  Joe Robinson

Workaholics are alcoholics in disguise

Similarities between workaholics and alcoholic

The obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour should be obvious. The alcoholic feels compelled to drink. The workaholic feels compelled to work. This is a good signal if the work is meaningful. No matter how excited you are about what you do at work, you need to do non-work things as well. When you feel compelled to keep working as much as you can physically handle, you have an addiction. As most of us know, in most cases the work is neither meaningful, nor exciting. 

The excessive time and mental energy invested in the compulsion has a negative effect on social relationships. Workaholics and alcoholics ignore friends and family, especially if these try to make them aware of their addiction. The more they isolate, the more the addiction grows in importance. 

When you have no friends except your colleagues who see you as your role in the company, then you have become your job instead of a human being.

Alcoholics tend to perform badly at work. But so do workaholics. Research finds no positive correlation between workaholic behavior and productivity. 

Even though workaholics may spend more time thinking about and physically engaging in work than the average worker, this may not be of any benefit to their employer. — Melissa Clark of the University of Georgia found in her metastudy on workaholism research.

I have had the opportunity to see up close why workaholics don’t do their companies any favors. They have high levels of stress, which undermine complex decision-making and cause crisis mentality, time urgency, bunker mentality, mistakes, and a raft of medical problems resulting in high absenteeism and medical bills. They think no one can do the job as well as they can, so they can’t delegate or trust, causing bottlenecks, conflicts, and missed deadlines. — Joe Robinson, worktolive.

Both alcoholics and workaholics are unhappy. All addictions have strong correlations with depression and anxiety. There is a lot of research on this. But it’s rather simple. You feel compelled to do an activity over and over again, with diminishing returns, at the exclusion of everything else in life. In this situation, how could you ever be happy?

Illness and death

Alcoholics die of cirrhosis of the liver or alcohol-related hepatitis. Along the way they suffer the many ill effects of excessive alcohol: heart disease, digestive problems, cancer, injuries, learning and memory afflictions, immune deficits, mental problems. For workaholics, the end comes soon as well, from stress-induced blood clots and heart attacks. Their chronic stress makes them likely to develop diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disorders, digestive illnesses, and more.

There is no cure for hangovers, or burnout

Every once in a while a company comes along proclaiming they have found the cure for the hangover. None of these cures work well. Once you are hangover, you will suffer through it.

The same with burnout, but on a deeper level. Hangovers come the next day. Burnouts come from years of overwork. They remain for much more than a day. And can have long-lasting effects.

Because of the lack of immediate feedback, workaholics indulge more than alcoholics. They have less physical signals to tell them they are harming themselves. The body is incredibly adaptable. It recruits resources and makes compromises to endure the stress-state of workaholism. But at one point it will break. 

The solution for hangovers is to not get drunk in the first place. 
The solution for burnouts is to not overwork in the first place.

Alcoholics Anonymous for work

The most famous method for treating alcoholism is Alcoholics Anonymous. There are a lot of ways in which AA addresses the addiction. I want to focus on one which is universal for all addictions: the tribe.

When an alcoholic registers for AA, he or she becomes a member of a specific tribe. A tribe of people who commit to not drinking alcohol. This is the most important social norm in AA groups. It conditions belonging. A member can ‘fall off the wagon’. But he/ she is not accepted back until they commit to not drinking. This is an incredibly effective method to keep former alcoholics from relapsing. 

Social pressure

Social pressure is the most powerful lever to change human behaviour. Our ancestors could only survive in tribes. We developed a deep, powerful need to belong to the tribe. This need overrides most of everything else. This is why we fear rejection so much. It is why public speaking is the number one fear in the developed world. This is why AA works in keeping alcoholics sober. 

Workaholics are good tribe members.

Social pressure is also why people become workaholics. Their company is their tribe. We spend all day with colleagues, face challenges and enemies together, share food, help each other through hardships. For most people their colleagues are the closest thing to a tribe they have. Much more powerful than friends whom we see much less, or family with whom we don’t share this struggle for success.

Workaholics are good tribe members who wind up in work-oriented company cultures. They are people who feel a strong need to belong. They achieve it by providing value to the tribe and respecting social norms. When they are in a company where hard work, long hours and dedication are valued, they become workaholics.

When we say workaholics’ identity revolves around work, what it means is that person tries to belong to the company tribe, above all else in life.

The solution for workaholic treatment is not so much individual. Sure, you can change your attitude to work less. Or you can quit your job and find a healthier company. But it’s hard to fight the deep instinct to belong. Quitting and reducing work feel like rejection, the very thing you fear.

The solution is social

Workaholics stop being workaholics if they find belonging to a different tribe. One that does not condition member status by working 16 hour days and putting the client presentation above children’s recital.

I am not suggesting creating Workaholics Anonymous. Mainly because it exists. Rather to escape the workaholic trap, you need to find a tribe which does not care about how much you work. A tribe where you belong because of who you are and what you do outside of work. 

This can be an organization like Workaholics Anonymous. But it can also be strengthening the relationships with people outside of work. Be it friends, family, people at the Crossfit box, fellow runners, people with the same hobby as you. To escape the workaholic tribe, you need to find another tribe. This soothes your unconscious desperate need to belong.

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