Workaholism and Drug Addiction Can Be a Dangerous Combination

At a time when the 40-hour workweek seems like a quaint remnant of days gone by and working hard is equated with working long, it can be difficult to know where ambition ends and workaholism begins. The crushing pace of the modern workplace and the framing of professional success as a moral imperative too often act to disguise dysfunctional relationships people develop with work, allowing damage to mount unfettered.

Unfortunately, even when workaholism is recognized, it is the one form of addiction that is worn as a badge of honor rather than a mark of true dysfunction; although experts estimate that 10% of the general population suffers from some form of workaholism, 27% of respondents to Canada’s General Social survey described themselves as workaholics, making it perhaps the only addiction people over-identify. This extraordinary inclination to call oneself a workaholic despite not having the illness suggests a widespread misunderstanding and even trivialization of the concept. In fact, workaholism isn’t simply a devotion to work or working long hours, nor is it something to be regarded with admiration. Workaholism is a serious process addiction driven by psychological anguish, causing an overwhelming compulsion to work despite damage to personal relationships, emotional well-being, and even physical health. What’s more, untreated workaholism can pave the way toward even more dangerous addictions.

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The Damage of Workaholism


Unlike most mental health disorders, workaholism has no universal set of diagnostic criteria. While efforts are underway to establish defined diagnostic tools to clearly identify workaholism, what experts currently agree on is that workaholism isn’t defined by number of hours worked, but by your relationship with work; work consumes you, you work to escape or cope with psychological distress, you deprioritize other aspects of your life in favor of work, and you are compelled to keep working even if implored to stop by others. “It’s not about long hours. It’s about the inability to turn it off,” says Dr. Bryan E. Robinson, psychotherapist and expert on work addiction. “It’s a question of balance.” This lack of balance can be deeply detrimental to virtually all aspects of your emotional, social, and physical health. As Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic writes:

Research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. That’s to say nothing of its toll on family members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spouses of workaholics tend to report unhappiness with their marriages. Having a workaholic parent is hardly better. A study of college undergraduates found that children of workaholics scored 72 percent higher on measures of depression than children of alcoholics.

Perhaps most surprisingly, research has found that work itself suffers from workaholism, as the disorder leads to impaired productivity and contributes to negative workplace dynamics. “Perfectionism overrides efficiency,” says Dr. Robinson. “A workaholic will spend unnecessary time on a project, often going over it again and again before passing it on.” One of the greatest dangers of workaholism, however, isn’t about inefficient work habits, weight gain, or even marital troubles, but an even more damaging and infinitely more stigmatized condition: drug addiction.

Workaholism and Drug Addiction


The emergence of drug addiction as the result of workaholism is spurred by a number of complex phenomena, the exact articulation of which may vary from from person to person. These include:

Substance Use To Relieve Stress

The compulsion to work can lead to overwhelming stress as you obsess about both real and imagined work-related tasks and responsibilities. “The stress that goes along with working too much has been shown to lead to substance abuse,” says Diane M. Fassel, author of Working Ourselves to Death. In contrast to most other addictions, workaholism doesn’t appear to produce feelings of elation, but distress and joylessness, producing increasing levels of emotional turmoil as your work addiction grows. To alleviate psychological suffering, you may turn to drug use to artificially induce feelings of euphoria and find relief from your mind’s preoccupation with work. Simultaneously, the discord your workaholism creates in your personal life, mounting health problems, or flailing work performance may also cause you to seek solace in drugs.

Substance Use to Improve Performance

Your desire to work longer, better, and harder may drive you toward performance-enhancing drugs such as ADHD medications or illegal stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. While anyone who struggles with workaholism may turn to substance use to improve performance, overachievers and people who work in high-stress professions may be particularly vulnerable due to both internal and external performance demands, or may find themselves in workplace cultures in which this type of drug use is normalized. As addiction takes hold, it is common to see your ability to work as inextricably linked to your substance use, creating significant psychological barriers to recovery.

Substance Use to Cope With Psychological Pain

Mental health experts believe that workaholism is a maladaptive coping mechanism subconsciously designed to provide distraction, escape, and channeling of psychological distress from co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, trauma, or other experiences of overwhelming emotional disturbance. However, workaholism may not be enough to relieve the psychological pain you are experiencing, and substance abuse can be an attractive secondary mechanism to help you cope with your emotional ailments. In other cases, substance use may start or escalate when you try to end your work addiction, leading you to replace one form of addiction with another.

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Finding Recovery


Trying to heal from workaholism on your own can be exceptionally difficult, and many people report going through a kind of withdrawal not unlike that experienced by people who discontinue drug use, often leading to swift relapse. As knowledge of workaholism as a process addiction has grown, the medical community has begun recognizing the importance of professional interventions and targeted treatments to support workaholics as they seek to break through their compulsion and re-establish psychological tranquility. If you are struggling with workaholism and drug addiction, however, many mental health professionals and treatment programs are simply not equipped to treat your multiple, complex needs. Dr. David Sack, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction medicine, says:

Not every therapist or addiction treatment program addresses this type of cross-addiction, nor do they understand that the solution isn’t always as simple as ‘don’t take work home’ or ‘limit yourself to 40 hours a week.’ In specialized drug rehabs for [workaholics], treatment focuses on the issues underlying both substance abuse and workaholism, including trauma, low self-esteem and a history of family dysfunction.

Seeking treatment in an addiction treatment program that specializes in treating co-occurring drug addictions, process addictions, and mental health disorders is essential to ensuring that the full scope of your needs is addressed. Without this kind of  multidimensional care, you not only risk leaving a significant piece of the puzzle untouched, you may also experience an intensification of the untreated addiction.

Comprehensive workaholism and drug addiction treatment shouldn’t just teach you what not to do, it should open up avenues towards healthy behaviors, reignite non-work-related interests, help you repair the damage your addictions have caused, and nurture your engagement with the world around you. Dr. Sack explains:

To prevent jumping from one addiction to the other, treatment should also involve cultivating passions outside of work and developing skills to achieve work-life balance as well as long-term monitoring and aftercare. Family therapy can help repair strained relationships and address any issues at home that contribute to addictive patterns. [Clients] can also benefit from meditation, yoga and other stress management techniques.

Finding an addiction program that offers a complete curriculum that includes individual and group psychotherapy, holistic and experiential therapies12-step support groups, and a range of continuing care options tailored to your needs gives you the best chance at successful recovery from both workaholism and drug addiction. With compassionate support and personalized treatment, you can end the cycle of suffering and create the life you truly want, free from the pain of addiction.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with workaholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned residential and outpatient programs and to find out how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.