Life revolves around work

Workaholic: When it's all about work

Working a lot is not a problem if you have the right balance in life. However, if life consists only of work, then there is the risk of being burned out as a workaholic, becoming ill and unable to work.


Working a lot and performing a lot is part of the lifestyle for many people and is generally approved by the social environment. The term workaholic is also often associated with positive things, such as hard work and commitment. From a health point of view, however, a distinction must be made between a heavy worker and a workaholic.


Heavy worker versus workaholic


A heavy worker is someone who works a lot and performs well, but who is doing well and whose social relationships are in order. After the work is done, he can switch off and devote himself to other things. If the balance between work, social environment and leisure time is right, a large workload usually does not cause any problems.

A workaholic, on the other hand, cannot relax and simply stop working even after a project is finished. “A job well done makes him feel good for a short time, but he needs a new project that he can throw himself into, otherwise he will fall into a low mood and get withdrawal symptoms. He has to tear everything down again immediately, even if he is no longer able to do so. A life as a workaholic is like being trapped in a spiral that turns downwards and can ultimately end in incapacity for work, ”explains Dr. David Oberreiter, psychiatrist and psychotherapist and head of the Psychotherapeutic Institute at the State Psychiatric Clinic Wagner-Jauregg in Linz.


Four phases


The transition from heavy worker to workaholic can - even if the transitions take place gradually - can be divided into four phases:

  • Phase 1: You work a lot and are committed, receive recognition and positive feedback, the work is experienced as satisfactory. The positive response tempts you to want to do even more.
  • Phase 2: You become more impatient, more aggressive, exhaustion sets in. The neglect of family, friends and leisure activities has fully set in, you invest all your energy in work and no longer seek compensation. "If you recognize your situation in this phase, it would still be possible to get out of the negative spiral," says Oberreiter.
  • Phase 3: The state of chronification has occurred. You just want to work more, everything else is largely hidden. Depression, anxiety and cardiovascular diseases can set in. You can tell that something is wrong, but most of the time you don't see yourself as a workaholic.
  • Phase 4: The performance drops to zero, one becomes unable to work, burnout and illnesses put an end to work.



The causes have not yet been adequately researched scientifically, but empirical values ​​can be used. According to these, the reasons why some people become addicted to work are as follows:

  • Emotional reasons: Praise and recognition from superiors, often also from the family, inspire the mood and let many fall into the “trap of praise”.
  • Our society rewards performance and often places it at the top of the goals worth striving for. Performance is required from an early age. Even one-year-olds are increasingly coming to crawling rooms and have to learn predetermined processes here. Again, children who sit quietly at the table and obey the rules are rewarded with praise. The achievement principle continues in the school and is internalized over the years.
  • The media also play their part: Media role models are increasingly being recruited from casting shows, the winners of which earn recognition and admiration. Competition and victory find their way into those areas of life where they would otherwise have no business (dancing, cooking, losing weight, "winning" the richest man, the most beautiful woman, etc.)
  • The increase in new, free forms of work is another catalyst in the direction of workaholic. “Freelancers are particularly at risk. You can usually divide your working hours freely and you are tempted to work on Sundays and public holidays too, ”explains Oberreiter.
  • The world of work is penetrating further and further into the private sphere. Business messages are also received in private surroundings via smartphones and the Internet. “With the increasing amount of work being done from home and the increasing constant availability, the world of work encroaches ever more deeply on the private sphere and prepares the breeding ground for workaholism,” reports the doctor.
  • Anxiety: The other side of the achievement medal is fear and the complex anxiety disorders that follow from it. Some workaholics try to counterbalance their fears by excessive zeal.

Postponing work is a special form. Work is delayed out of concern that the work assignment will not be done well enough and out of fear of failure. But then comes the constant thinking about the work that has not yet been done. Even so, the intellectual preoccupation with work can occupy the thoughts in the free time.

Sometimes workaholics are accused of working so hard because they cannot stand doing nothing and cannot keep themselves busy; or that they try to suppress problems through their many jobs. “In some cases, these arguments may apply, but these circumstances are usually the effects of too much work and not their causes,” explains the psychiatrist.

The motive of money is also not a typical trigger. “The emotional aspect is more important. The praise, admiration and the opportunity to reduce fears. The fact that workaholism can also affect housework or voluntary work where there is no financial remuneration for the service also shows that the income is not decisive, ”explains Oberreiter.


Recognize danger


In order to know whether you tend to be a workaholic, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my free time like?
  • What is my relationship like?
  • Is the balance right in my life?
  • Do I have friends and do I have regular contact with them?

When answering these questions, it is important to check whether you can mentally separate yourself completely from work with family, friends and in your free time. Can I fully engage with my partner, am I also thinking about the leisure activity or am I thinking of work here myself? A clear indication that you cannot switch off is the access to work news outside of working hours. "Nobody can be with the family completely emotionally if professional emails are checked in between," says Oberreiter.


Measures and therapy


Many workaholics literally work “till they drop”. At the end of total exhaustion, there is often a heart attack, depression or an anxiety disorder. In order to avoid such serious consequences, one should take countermeasures as soon as one realizes that one is or could be a workaholic. "This can not be done overnight. Small steps are the order of the day. Giving up work completely does not work in practice. The path to work addiction has emerged over the years and should be carefully abandoned step by step. Psychotherapy is usually helpful here. If the relationship is already affected, couples therapy is recommended, ”advises Oberreiter.

The first point of contact for those affected can be the family doctor, with whom one can discuss to what extent the balance between workload and leisure is still in a healthy range or to what extent physical effects such as sleep disorders, anxiety, depression or cardiovascular diseases are already evident.

Contacting specialized facilities, such as the addiction clinic at the Linz Psychiatric Clinic, can help determine the extent of the impairment and set the course for further therapy. "If you seek psychotherapeutic or specialist psychiatric help, the psychotherapist or psychiatrist will help to create a plan that is individually tailored to the person concerned and his or her work situation in order to find a healthy balance in life," explains Oberreiter.


Dr. Thomas Hartl

July 2014

Photo: shutterstock

‌ Last updated on March 11, 2015