Death in the office

An addiction to work can be difficult to distinguish from simply working hard, but workaholics know the difference.

by World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Oscar Wilde once said that doing nothing is hard work, and for most workaholics this could not be more true. Although often used as a throwaway label, a workaholic is 'addicted to work', physically and mentally.

Workaholism has been recognised in the US as a form of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and in Japan karoshi ('death by overwork') is thought to kill nearly 1,000 people a year. The Japanese Ministry of Labour has published annual statistics on karoshi since 1987, and there is a national council for karoshi victims and a telephone hotline. In its first three years, the hotline received over 2,500 calls, mostly from widows trying to seek compensation for the death of their husbands. The number of work-related suicides has also increased steadily over recent years (see p21).

In both China and Korea, there are now words for 'death by overwork', guolaosi and gwarose respectively, while workaholism has been officially recognised as a problem in Brazil. In Europe, stress and stress-related illnesses have become one of the biggest concerns of occupational health and safety professionals. Dutch academics have even diagnosed a syndrome where workaholics develop high stress levels when inactive, and say that about 3% of the population could be affected by this 'leisure illness'.

However, the trick with workaholism is that it is difficult to distinguish from plain hard work. Many societies nowadays encourage it, be they capitalist/Protestant work ethic cultures in the West, or eastern traditions in Japan, Korea and China, where hard work is seen as a virtue. Even Communist Russia used Stakhanovism and the concept of work to rally people to its cause. In a global survey by World Business (see p22), 49% of respondents said "hard work was encouraged and applauded" at their company.

People who regularly burn the midnight oil get promotions and bonuses, and working mums who manage successful careers and happy families are admired. We live in a workaholic culture and workaholism is the only addiction without a stigma attached to it. Even Kate Moss didn't manage to make drug addiction acceptable.

This is why workaholism is not taken as seriously as it should be. Even the Priory, Britain's high-profile clinic for addiction, says "workaholism is just something journalists like writing about". Certainly, there is little empirical evidence, partly due to the lack of an agreed definition, but that shouldn't belittle the fact that those affected suffer greatly.

The only doctor for miles in a rural part of Arizona, Mark was a busy man: home visits, consultations, director of the local medical centre and a regular legal medical adviser in court. He worked all hours of the day and night, and ignored the warning signs that his life was out of control, such as sleeping in the doctors' lounge rather than going home. One night, he fell asleep at the wheel of his car as he drove home. It rolled several times before crashing.

Sandi ran two retail stores with her husband. She had five children and a schedule with a never-ending list of things to do. "I lived my life in 15-minute segments. I liked the feeling of trying to beat the clock." One day her neighbour pointed out that she was never at home and that her son missed her. Sandi says: "Having someone comment on my competence as a mother was particularly hurtful." Many of us probably recognise these situations: we all juggle timetables and responsibilities. It's modern life, we might think, and it's hard work.

But most people who work hard also know how to play hard; they know how to relax. Workaholics don't. They deliberately seek out busy lifestyles. They like the rush, the adrenaline surge, the hecticness. They just don't know how to say no. For workaholics, work is all-consuming. Their motto might well be 'I work therefore I exist'. But like all addictions, workaholism is progressive and destructive, and often ends with a difficult wake-up call, as in the cases of Mark and Sandi.

Unsurprisingly, workaholics are not particularly good workers. They're often poor managers because they can't delegate, and can sabotage team morale by criticising colleagues not prepared to work similar hours. Bryan Robinson, a psychotherapist and professor of counselling, special education and child development at the University of North Carolina, and an ex-workaholic himself, said he used to hide his work on holidays, just like an alcoholic would hide his bottle.

Workaholics have no life outside of work, no friends, little family and certainly no leisure activities. "They have difficulty relating to people," says Robinson. "They are emotionally unavailable. Work for them is much easier. It's not a threatening situation, whereas in social situations there's no script."

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, says that the demands of organisations push people towards workaholism, who might not otherwise be so inclined. "It's a bit like soft drugs leading to hard drugs. You start with hard work and you become a workaholic."

According to Cooper, this lifestyle affects up to a third of the working population and World Business found that more than 70% of people regularly worked at weekends. This phenomenon, Cooper says, is fuelled by two factors: job insecurity and the long hours culture. "In the developing world, people work very long hours for survival. But in the developed world? It's the Americanisation of work."

True workaholics, however - ie, those who choose to fill their life with work - represent a much smaller proportion; about 5%, says Cooper. What drives them to do so is as mysterious and intangible as what drives other people to drink or use drugs: perhaps an emotional void or an insecurity. "It was like having a black hole inside me," says Mary, a recovering workaholic, "and I used work to fill it. And because of the very nature of black holes, it kept absorbing and sucking more out of me."

What workaholics get is a rush of adrenaline - a high - and a feeling of being indispensable. And for anyone with slightly low self-esteem, it's a very seductive concept. "I was convinced that the business would not run without me," says Sandi, "and I always thought I could do three hours' work in 30 minutes."

Mary had her own business and used to work 80-100 hours a week. A few years ago, someone in her family had to undergo serious surgery. "I had worked my body into the ground and I realised that I had to do something to avoid having to go through the same experience myself."

The turning point for Mary and Sandi was joining Workaholics Anonymous (WA), founded in 1983 by a teacher and a corporate financial planner in New York, the mecca of workaholism. WA - which operates under the umbrella of the World Service Office (WSO), pioneer of the Alcoholics Anonymous concept - uses the 12-step recovery programme used by all 'anonymous' groups. It seeks to help people overcome their addiction by focusing on spirituality and the support of others, and to make amends with the people who have been hurt by the addiction.

There are now more than 50 branches all over the world and WA organises international conferences every year. The turnout is generally between 30 and 50 people, but this year things could be a little different. WA published its Book of Recovery in September last year and it has exceeded the organisation's expectations. "We've sold 750 copies and we're ordering a second print run," says Mary, a volunteer at WA. The book is a comprehensive overview of workaholism, from individual stories, to a step-by-step guide to successful recovery, to practical information on how to get meetings started.

Since publication of the book, the WA website has registered 5,000 new users a month, up from just a few hundred before, and Mary says that people from countries as far-flung as Nigeria have been in touch. The conference in Florida in November this year could therefore capitalise on this new wave of exposure.

The old joke is, of course, that people never go to WA meetings because they are too busy to attend. But for those who have done so, the rewards have been little short of miraculous. "WA has given me a new lease of life," says Mary. "To realise that things you believed unique and idiosyncratic to yourself are in fact a common suffering is a very powerful thing."

The friendship and understanding that workaholics get through WA is paramount for people who have been left isolated after years of social reclusiveness. Sandi says: "Surrendering to the group, and putting it all in the hands of a greater power, was a wonderful feeling."

Once workaholics have acknowledged their addiction (which often takes years), they need to 'sober up'. But abstinence is a fuzzy concept. With alcohol and drugs, drawing the line is obvious, but most people need to work: going cold turkey is not an option. Establishing boundaries is therefore personal and circumstantial: Mark, for instance, quit his legal and administrative jobs, and now works only 30 hours a week, while Sandi, who sold her business and separated from her husband, has learnt to say no to last-minute engagements.

Technological advances means it is possible to be connected to work 24/7, and this 'Blackberrisation' of our lives can be insidious, particularly for workaholics, as it offers a justification for their addiction. Gayle Porter, a professor of organisational behaviour at Rutgers University, New Jersey, has also carried out research into how people define a work ethic. "The one thing that comes up again and again," she says, "is that people who don't show up for work have a poor work ethic."

Cooper agrees and argues that employers care more about presence than productivity, particularly in Japan. Social observer and author Niall Murtagh, who worked for Mitsubishi for 13 years, says that appearance is crucial in Japan. "It's very important for promotion. People will think: 'Well, he failed, but he put in a lot of work'."

In the West, where paid holidays and maternity leave are some of the great social advancements of the last century, the message is a lot more cryptic. "If the person who works 90 hours a week and never takes holidays gets promoted, that's the message people will read," says Porter. He believes that companies should be more consistent and make it clear that taking paternity leave or holidays will not damage careers.

The irony perhaps is that hard work was not always a mark of success. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that work began to be acceptable, and even desirable, for the wealthy. Work became both a social leveller and an agent of mobility - and hard work today still bears the promise of a better life and is the hallmark of success. According to our survey, 14% of people said they would be proud to be called a workaholic.

The wake-up call for many workaholics is often family problems. Robinson says that most people who come to see him have been dragged kicking and screaming by their spouses. Unsurprisingly, his studies show that divorce rates are 40% higher in workaholic families, and that children of workaholics also display much higher rates of stress and anxiety. No one denies that hard work is sometimes necessary, but it's about how it is managed.

"You can cope with hard work and deliver for a while," says Lennart Levi, emeritus professor of psychosocial medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and one of the world's leading authorities on stress, "but over time you will burn out."

Burn-outs are costly in psychological and economic terms, and many companies have now realised that it is in their interests to manage stress levels. Levi has done a lot of work on stress management and is the main author of the EU directive on work-related stress. "The regulation was signed in October 2004. It wasn't compulsory, but all 25 countries have signed it and now it's legally binding," says Levi. "Countries have to report in three years."

There are similar signs that companies and governments are adopting a healthier attitude to work-life balance. The French embraced the trend with the 35-hour week and an initiative - WorkWise UK - has just been launched in the UK to promote flexible working hours. Rankings of best companies to work for on both sides of the Atlantic highlight the policies in place to improve employee welfare. Even in Japan, trade unions encourage people to take more than the average eight to 10 days' holiday a year and impose a 'go-home-early day'.

There is little doubt that the issues workaholics face could surface in another form. But so long as people are rewarded for working long hours, workaholism will remain an addiction that is not only misunderstood but undiagnosed.

Common myths
- Workaholics are always working (many are chronic procrastinators)
- Workaholism affects only high-powered executives
- It's only stress and can be 'managed' with stress-reduction techniques
- No one has ever died of hard work
- Workaholism is profitable for corporations
- Workaholism is a positive addiction
- Workaholics are super-productive
Actual characteristics
- Multiple addictions - money, food, alcohol and relationships
- Denial - first defence of any addictive process
- Self-esteem issues
- Dishonesty - exaggerated achievements and minimised failures
- Inability to relax
- Obsession - life centres around work
- Isolation - no life outside work


Workaholics Anonymous

The website has a detailed outline of the 12-step recovery programme and a list of meetings worldwide. People can also get in touch with WA coordinators.

Workaholics Anonymous World Conference 2006, 3-5 November, Tampa, Florida

Booking forms for the annual conferencecan be downloaded from the website (above).


The Book of Recovery, published by WA (2005), order form on the website (above)

Chained to the Desk: a guidebook for workaholics, their partners and children, and the clinicians who treat them, Bryan Robinson, New York University Press, 1998

Working Ourselves to Death: the cost of workaholism and the rewards of recovery, Diane Fassel, HarperCollins, 1992

Work Addiction Risk Test (WART)

2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Cerebro-cardiovascular disease
(strokes and heart attacks) 617 690 819 742 819
Mental illness, such as
depression and panic attacks 212 265 341 447 524
Suicides 19 31 43 40 45
Source: Ministry of Labour, Japan


"Pierre de Coubertin said that the important thing was to participate, but the important thing today is to participate the least possible" - Corinne Maier, Hello Laziness, 2004

"Americans generally spend so much time on things that are urgent that we have none left to spend on those that are important" - Henry Ward Beecher

"Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do" - Oscar Wilde

"Nowadays ambition and the love of a job well done are the indelible mark of defeat and of the most mindless submission" - Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, 1967

"Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism"

Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, 1932


World Business surveyed more than 500 managers around the globe to discover their, and their companies', attitude to work. On the whole, the findings are encouraging and indicate a healthy attitude to work:

- 55% report being happy with their workload and enjoy their job, while another 30% see work as a necessary evil

- A large majority (60%) work 40-60 hours a week, which is within the normal working week of most countries

- 52% take four weeks or more holiday a year

- 96% of participants say they enjoy their time off and more than 70% have sustained outside interests, including family, sport and volunteer activities

- 51% say they would be "worried" if someone called them a workaholic

The survey also suggests that work is still at the heart of people's lives and their environment:

- 49% say their company encourages hard work

- More than 70% work weekends 'sometimes' or 'often'

- 26% of participants take only two weeks or less holiday every year

- 14% say that work runs their life and another 14% would feel "proud" if they were called a workaholic


Idling, lazing around, chilling out, indolent reverie, doing nothing: who can afford to do that these days? You'd be surprised. There is a great tradition of anti-work writing, from Oscar Wilde to Corinne Maier (author of Hello Laziness). Even popular culture has added its tuppence-worth thanks to Oasis' recent hit 'The Importance of Being Idle' (a wink to Oscar Wilde). Here are some top tips from champion loafers for a better life in the slow lane.

Tom Hodgkinson, author of How to be Idle and editor of The Idler (published at a leisurely two issues a year) recommends lots of sleep, naps and tea breaks. Maier recommends lying low at work and doing the minimum to get by, while Bertrand Russell aspired to a four-hour working day. It's all about spending more time as one wishes and shunning modern life's stifling work conventions.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

The art of leadership: From Marcus Aurelius to Martin Luther King

Transformational, visionary, servant… enough is enough.

Lockdown stress: 12 leaders share practical coping tips

In hard times, it's far too easy for the boss to forget to look after...

Don’t just complain about uncertainty, find the tools to navigate it

Traditional in-person research methods won’t work right now, but that’s no excuse for a wait-and-see...

How well have CEOs performed during the coronavirus pandemic?

A new survey offers a glimpse into what their staff think.

Why women leaders are excelling during the coronavirus pandemic

There is a link between female leaders and successful responses to COVID-19.

Why your employees don’t speak up

Research: Half of workers don’t feel comfortable to express concerns - and it’s usually because...