What Defines a Workaholic?

I learned something new today via this short piece in The Atlantic.

Wayne Oates, who published 57 books in his lifetime, coined/invented the word workaholic in 1968. While there still isn’t a standard medical definition of a workaholic, Jordan Weissman digests some papers on the subject:

What, precisely, qualifies someone as a workaholic? There’s still no single accepted medical definition. But psychologists have tried to distinguish people merely devoted to their careers from the true addicts. A seminal 1992 paper on how to measure the condition argued that sufferers work not only compulsively but also with little enjoyment [1]. Newer diagnostic tests attempt to single out those who, among other behaviors, binge and then suffer from withdrawal—just as someone would with, say, a gambling or cocaine habit [2].

Even as the precise outlines of workaholism remain a bit fuzzy, various studies have tried to identify its physical and emotional effects. At the risk of carrying on like a Pfizer ad: research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression [3]. That’s to say nothing of its toll on family members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spouses of workaholics tend to report unhappiness with their marriages [4]. 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. They also exhibited more-severe levels of “parentification”—a term family therapists use for sons and daughters who, as the paper put it, “are parents to their own parents and sacrifice their own needs … to accommodate and care for the emotional needs and pursuits of parents or another family member” [5].

How many people are true workaholics? One recent estimate suggests that about 10 percent of U.S. adults might qualify [6]; the proportion is as high as 23 percent among lawyers, doctors, and psychologists [7]. Still more people may be inclined to call themselves workaholics, whether or not they actually are: in 1998, 27 percent of Canadians told the country’s General Social Survey that they were workaholics, including 38 percent of those with incomes over $80,000 [8]. (Even among those with no income, 22 percent called themselves workaholics! Presumably some were busy homemakers and students.)


(via Andrew Sullivan)


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