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Busyness Addiction: The Psychology

Part Three: When Workaholism is Involved

written by Ray Williams September 8, 2020
Busyness Addiction: The Psychology

Busyness and Workaholism

A workaholic is a person who is addicted to work. The term generally implies that the person enjoys their work; it can also imply that they simply feel compelled to do it. There is no generally accepted medical definition of such a condition, although some forms of stress, impulse control disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder can be work-related.

Workaholism is not the same as working hard. Although the term workaholic usually has a negative connotation, it is sometimes used by people wishing to express their devotion to one’s career in positive terms. The “work” in question is usually associated with a paying job, but it may also refer to independent pursuits such as sports, music and art.

A workaholic in the negative sense is popularly characterized by a neglect of family and other social relations. Similarly, people considered to be workaholics tend to lose track of time — voluntarily or involuntarily. For example, people might proclaim that they will spend a certain amount of time (e.g. 30 minutes) on their work, while those “30 minutes” ultimately become hours.

Experts say the incessant work-related activity masks anxiety, low self-esteem, and intimacy problems. And as with addictions to alcohol, drugs or gambling, a workaholic’s denial and destructive behavior will persist despite feedback from loved ones or danger signs such as deteriorating relationships. Poor health is another warning sign. Because there’s less of a social stigma attached to workaholism than to other addictions, health symptoms can easily go undiagnosed or unrecognized, say researchers.


Clinical researcher Professor Bryan Robinson identifies two axes for workaholics: work initiation and work completion. He associates the behavior of procrastination with both ‘Savoring Workaholics’ (those with low work initiation/low work completion) and ‘Attention-Deficit Workaholics’ (those with high work initiation and low work completion), in contrast to ‘Bulimic’ and ‘Relentless’ workaholics — both of whom have high work completion.


Workaholism in Japan is considered a serious social problem leading to early death, often on the job, a phenomenon dubbed karōshi. Overwork was popularly blamed for the fatal stroke of Prime Minister of Japan Keizō Obuchi, in the year 2000.


In the U.S. and Canada, workaholism remains what it’s always been: the so-called ‘respectable addiction’ that’s dangerous as any other. ‘Workaholism is an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s not the same as working hard.’ (Robinson) —Psychology Wiki

A workaholic’s obsession with work is all-occupying, which prevents them from maintaining healthy relationships, outside interests, or even taking measures to protect their health. Workaholics feel the urge of being busy all the time, to the point that they often perform tasks that aren’t required or necessary for project completion. As a result, they tend to be inefficient workers, since they focus on being busy, instead of focusing on being productive.

In addition, workaholics tend to be less effective than other workers because they have difficulty working as part of a team, trouble delegating or entrusting co-workers, or organizational problems due to taking on too much work at once. Furthermore, workaholics often suffer sleep deprivation which results in impaired brain and cognitive function.

As with other psychological addictions, workaholics often cannot see that they have a problem. Confronting the workaholic will generally be met with denial. Co-workers, family members and friends may need to engage in some type of intervention to communicate the effects of the workaholic’s behavior on them. Indeed, mental treatment to cure a workaholic can successfully reduce the hours spent on the job, while increasing the person’s productivity.

Studies show that fully recovered former workaholics can accomplish in 50 hours what they previously couldn’t do in 80.

The Psychology of Busyness

If you’re reading this on your phone, rushing to work while hunting for your headphones, then you need to stop. At least, that’s what Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who lived at the beginning of the 19th century, would advise. And indeed, as we race from the office to the gym to a dinner, proudly showing off our jam-packed schedules, it’s worth remembering Kierkegaard’s warnings about busyness long ago. He wrote: ‘Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work … What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?’


Stephen Evans, a philosophy professor at Baylor University, explains that Kierkegaard saw busyness as a means of distracting oneself from truly important questions, such as who you are and what life is for. Busy people ‘fill up their time, always find things to do,’ but they have no principle guiding their life. ‘Everything is important but nothing is important,’ he adds.


Without answering crucial and terrifying questions about life, without deciding on a unified purpose, Kierkegaard believed that one could not develop a self. He called those without one unified purpose “double-minded,” and argued that this mindset causes busyness. And so busyness and lack of self are a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. ‘If you don’t have a self, you don’t want to be aware of that,’ Evans says. ‘You always have to stay busy.’


Kierkegaard’s concerns about busyness are also connected with his view of time, and the importance of living in the present. “The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself,” he wrote. In other words, obsessing over future goals, and keeping frenetically busy with an eye to some far-off date, is a way of distracting oneself from present reality. — QZ


By refusing to address the important questions in our lives, and instead of living a “double-minded” and busy life, we can be afraid to commit to a single person and cause, and so can lead to missing out on one’s calling or relationship. Comedian Aziz Ansari has made a similar point, suggesting that our incessant FOMO (fear of missing out) prevents us from focusing and fully committing to one person or one thing.

The problem, of course, is that we set expectations for a busy life as a culture, not as individuals.

You can’t suddenly decide one morning to opt-out of everything that’s demanded of you as a woman, man, parent or employee. Worse, the whole thing’s rigged: the expectations keep getting bigger. Get on top of your email, and you’ll find people send you more. Figure out how to spend sufficient time with your kids and at work, and you’ll suddenly feel some new social pressure – to spend more time exercising, cultivating a hobby  or locating ethically sourced vegetables.

Most time management advice rests on the unspoken assumption that it’s possible to win the game: to find a slot for everything that matters. It’s just a matter either of shuffling the busy pieces or shaving time off of the things that really sustain us in life — sleep, rest, solitude, eating leisurely.

But if the game’s designed to be unwinnable, As Brigid Schulte suggests in her book Overwhelmed, you can permit yourself to stop trying. There’s only one viable time management approach left (and even that’s only really an option for the better-off). Step one: identify what seem to be, right now, the most meaningful ways to spend your life. Step two: schedule time for those things. There is no step three. Everything else just has to fit around them – or not. Approach life like this and a lot of unimportant things won’t get done, but, crucially, a lot of important things won’t get done either. Certain friendships will be neglected; certain amazing experiences won’t be had; you won’t eat or exercise as well as you theoretically could. In an era of extreme busyness, the only conceivable way to live a meaningful life is to not do thousands of meaningful things.

And “Learn to say no”: it’s such a cliché, and easy to assume it means only saying no to tedious, unfulfilling stuff. But “the biggest, trickiest lesson,” as the author Elizabeth Gilbert once put it, “is learning how to say no to things you do want to do” – stuff that matters – so that you can do a handful of things that really matter. Our only hope of beating overwhelm may be to limit, radically, what we’re willing to get whelmed by in the first place.”

Being busy is not a virtue, and it’s not a badge of honor. We are human beings, not human doings.

This is Part Three of a four-part series.

Part One- Are You Addicted To Busyness?

Part Two- Busyness Addiction

Part Four- Addicted to Busyness


Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

Copyright: Neither this article nor a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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