Successful Treatment for Workaholics Starts with Thinking Beyond the Work

Despite cultural standards that normalize overwork, workaholism is real, and it takes a real toll on the personal lives and families of those who suffer from it. But working compulsively is the symptom of a greater problem—not its cause. To truly address that problem, you’ll need to put the right therapeutic supports in place, whether that’s talk therapy, support from peers, or residential treatment.

“For years, I worked seven-day weeks, through birthdays and most public holidays, Christmases and New Year’s Eves included,” writes Antonella Gambotto-Burke. “I worked mornings and afternoons, resuming work after dinner. I remember feeling as if life were a protracted exercise in pulling myself out of a well by a rope, and that rope was work.”

For Gambotto-Burke, an author, journalist, and mother, work was a lifeline: the thing that both anchored her and kept her afloat. Work was her coping skill, but relying on it didn’t solve the problems that drove her there; it merely sidestepped them.

If you live with workaholism, you may feel compelled to work, driven to complete your tasks without a solid understanding of why it’s so important that you do so. When you’re not working, you feel a sense of anxiety and panic, like you’re incomplete when you’re outside of the workplace, and you may even give up hobbies or recreational activities in order to free up time for more work. If this sounds familiar to you, know that workaholism is real—despite cultural standards that normalize overwork and make it seem like it isn’t. It can’t be solved just by working less; in order to truly overcome it, you’ll need to find out what lies beneath your compulsion to overwork—the thing that drives it and gives it form.

How Cultural Expectations Make it Easy to Overlook the Effects of Workaholism

Because we live and work in a culture in which labor is valued and championed, it’s easy for workaholism to fly under the radar. It’s almost an expectation, in many fields, that our jobs will take precedence over all else in our lives. When we put in extra work, our supervisors reward us by chalking it up to personal ambition or drive, and that masks our workaholism with cultural ideas about success—expectations that may or may not actually be driving the excessive amounts of work we do. We may even be rewarded with promotions or raises, or touted as examples to follow, and that reinforces that our workaholism is valid, even if it negatively impacts our personal lives.

And that’s the real impact of workaholism: it leaves very little time for our personal lives, and often causes our relationships outside of work to disintegrate. “Workaholics take better care of their cars than themselves,” says Bryan Robinson, the psychotherapist who spearheaded the definitive study on workaholism. “They pay more attention to their technology than the people they love the most. That doesn’t mean they don’t love them, but like an alcoholic, the drug comes before everything else.” It’s a paradox for workaholics using their jobs as a way to avoid difficult relationships at home—at best, their overwork causes them to ignore those fraught relationships entirely, and at worst, to exacerbate them.

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Reaching the Root of Your Struggle

Like any other addiction, workaholism doesn’t exist on its own—it’s symptomatic of something larger, something that lies beneath the surface of your work. That something might be a difficult marriage or other relationship, but it might also be trauma or mental health challenges you haven’t yet addressed. Regardless of what’s causing your struggle with workaholism, the important thing is that you acknowledge that the work is a symptom—not a cause. Once you’ve reached that point, you can start thinking seriously about how you want to move toward its source, whether that’s through family therapy, support groups with other workaholics, individual therapy with a process addiction specialist, or a combination of them all.

Regardless of the method you choose, you’ll focus on learning to reward yourself for healthy behaviors rather than excessive amounts of work—which can, admittedly, be a tall order given our cultural focus on overachieving. That’s why so many who struggle with workaholism choose residential treatment: because it gives them an exhaustively supportive space in which to address their addiction to work, one in which they can create a treatment plan that includes exactly the treatment modalities that meet their needs. Perhaps that’s family therapy, or perhaps it’s holistic therapy or spiritual counseling. Whatever you choose, remember that workaholism is real, and, more importantly, conquerable—and putting the right therapeutic supports in place is the first step in conquering it.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive rehabilitation options to people who struggle with workaholism as well as other process addictions. If you think you may be suffering from an addiction to your work, get in touch with us to learn more about how our programs can help you build balance in your life.