Though the concept of workaholism was first introduced in the beginning of the 1970s, there is little information available concerning helping techniques and methods that counselors can use to work with workaholic clients. Such information is in great need for helping professionals and help-seekers alike given that workaholism has become one of the main health threats to people's work life and personal life (Burke, 2001; Struhl, 1998). The negative impact of workaholism on people's lives is alarming as research evidence shows that up to 25% of the working population are enduring symptoms of workaholism (Robinson, 1998).
This calls for the utilization of pertinent helping approaches in dealing with workaholism. The core for professional helping aims to achieve a balanced relationship between work life and other aspects of one's life. That is, career and mental health practitioners need to help workaholics to achieve a balance between meaningful productive work and healthy leisure activities for life satisfaction, and for maintaining well being (Caproni, 1997; Naughton, 1987; Seybold and Salomone, 1994).
The workaholic problem
Characteristics of the workaholic. Workaholics can be defined by their excessive involvement with work and neglect of other areas of their lives (Porter, 1996). Most workaholics work consistently long hours, including evenings and weekends (Tyler, 1999) and when a workaholic can be convinced to take a holiday, he or she will usually bring work along (Porter, 1996).
As well, workaholics like to have control, and as a result, will rarely delegate work to others (Spence and Robbins, 1992), causing them to work even more hours. Despite the many hours they work, workaholics are not necessarily highly productive employees. In fact, many could be quite inefficient due to the fact that they exhibit higher levels of perfectionism on the job than others (Spence and Robbins, 1992).
A workaholic's behavior tends to be very one-sided due to the time and thought put into their work. In fact, for the workaholic, satisfaction derived from work is more important than the satisfaction derived from family life (Seybold and Salomone, 1994). Not surprisingly, a study conducted by Bonebright et al. (2000) showed that the workaholic has more work-life conflict than a non-workaholic. It is not uncommon for the workaholic to suffer from health problems such as stress-induced illnesses (Boneb-right et al., 2000), chronic fatigue (Tyler, 1999), increased levels of anxiety (Burke, 1999) and substance abuse (Killinger, 1991).
Definition and causes of workaholism
The term workaholic was originated in 1971 by Oates to correspond to the term alcoholic. Indeed, when work takes over much of one's time and thought, workaholism, like alcoholism, can be seen as an addiction (Killinger, 1991). The first academic definition of the term workaholic came from Spence and Robbins in 1992, who defined the workaholic as a person who ‘is highly work involved, feels compelled or driven to work because of inner pressures, and is low in enjoyment of work’ (p. 162). Spence and Robbins differentiate a workaholic from a work enthusiast, which is a person who is also highly involved in his or her work, but does not experience the same internal drive to work or the same dissatisfaction from work. This paper focuses only on the workaholic.
The purported causes of workaholism are many and varied. Seybold and Salamone (1994) conclude that workaholism can be associated with one or more of the following:
a. an uncontrollable addiction;
b. an individual's desire to escape from personal issues faced outside of work;
c. extreme need to control one's life;
d. a highly competitive nature;
e. parents that modeled workaholic behavior; and
f. an impaired self-image and limited self-esteem.
Bonebright et al. (2000) suggest that counseling strategies to be used with the workaholic be based upon the type of workaholism.
Because it is beyond the scope of this discussion to outline counseling strategies for each of the workaholic types, this article will focus only on workaholism as characterized by an impaired self-image and self-esteem, as in (f) above. The idea that lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem is at the heart of workaholism is well supported by academic literature (e.g., Seybold and Salomone, 1994; Porter, 1996). In fact, research conducted by Burke (1999) clearly indicates that workaholics have a higher need to prove self than work enthusiasts, and ‘workaholism thus emerges as work behaviors in response to feelings of low self-worth and insecurity’ (p. 527).
Complicating factors of workaholism
Perhaps the real problem with addressing workaholism is that it is not typically seen as a problem. Unlike alcoholism, workaholism is quite an acceptable practice in our society. A workaholic's devotion to his or her work often leads to promotions and higher levels of salary—rewards that simply serve to perpetuate the problem. To complicate matters further, in an unstable economy, employers may actually seek out the workaholic in order to get more hours for the same wage. This attitude would only serve to spark the workaholic's feelings of insecurity and reconfirm to him or her that working long hours is the only way to ensure job marketability, reinforcing the workaholic-conditioned cycle of thinking, feeling, and behavior (Robinson, 2000).
Denial of the problem
Due in part to the fact that workaholism is so accepted in our society, and that its practice can be easily rationalized, denial of the problem is another issue that counselors must contend with. In fact, Porter (1996) finds that ‘denial of the problem may be the greatest hindrance to corrective action’ (p. 78). The state of denial may further intensify and worsen the workaholic symptom before it is dealt with. At times, an employer or family member may refer workaholics who are still in denial of their problem to a counselor. For the purpose of the present discussion, it is assumed that clients that are seeking the help of a counselor are doing so through their own identified need to change.
- Burwell, Rebecca & Charles Chen; Applying REBT to workaholic clients; Counseling Psychology Quarterly; Sept 2002; Vol. 15; Issue 3.
Reflection Exercise #5
The preceding section contained information
about the characteristics, definition, and complicating factors of workaholism. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
According to Burwell, why is denial of the problem another issue that counselors must contend with in counseling workaholics? Record the letter of the correct answer