Work and The Addictive Personality

Juggling the work/life balance can be complex, particularly for those who may be dealing with relationship/marital problems, health issues, money worries, children or lack of promotional opportunities. It can feel that work is the only ‘constant’ in life worth doing. However, the demands of work can put a strain on personal relationships and social activities, especially if it involves working shifts, or anti - social hours. It can also be challenging, due to integral difficulties such as being poorly managed, over burdened with responsibilities, ‘office politics’ bullying, racial or sexual harassment, imminent redundancy etc.

Work is an environment that we spend most of our time, both mentally and psychically. It provides a regular income, a sense of self worth, development of skills, and a social and professional network and provides a sense of purpose and omnipotence if the rest of your life feels out of control. The ‘culture’ of work expect you to be a ‘team player’ achieving and proving yourself. Being a professional means not showing your feelings about your domestic life or discussing how you feel about work.

In our current economic climate staff are working longer hours, with fewer staff, creating greater tension and pressure which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, increasing the potential to be addicted to other forms of escapism as a result. If the employer has an independent counselling/therapy service, empathetic manger or supervisor, to give sufficient ‘time off’ or make reasonable work adjustments. This can reduce potential problems escalating, strengthen the relationship between employee and employer, and sustain the advantages of job retention.

For those who find work the most ‘solid’ and stimulating aspect of their lives, may be unaware that they have become addicted to it.

Orfords ‘Excessive Appetites – A Psychological View of Addiction’ (2001) states,
'Escape or distraction have appeared as suggested functions of both drinking and gambling and are perhaps just as salient in the case of the ‘workaholic’ since it both involves the focusing of attention on a direction which may be removed from the source of anxiety and in addition, can involve intense cognitive activity on the form of fantasy’

An indicator of work addictive behaviour can be reflected in established friendships, relationships and recreational patterns breaking down. Self ‘insight’ or advice from a supportive friend, family member or colleague can trigger the need to seek professional help, of a careers counsellor.
What creates an addiction to work? Is it an integral part of an addictive personality formulated from childhood to adulthood? Or is it a result of not being able to cope with life ‘challenges’ and ‘crisis’s’ holding onto work as a ‘buoy’ that takes precedence above all else. Work can fulfill life long aspirations for many, but there are those who find it a constant challenge, that can afflict many areas of life.

Working hard appears to be a concept admired by many. The whole ‘work ethic’ feeds into a reward system – ‘work hard and you will reap the benefits’, i.e. pay rise, promotion, company car, private health care and pension etc. It could be argued that ‘socially aware’ addictions such as gambling, internet addictions, sex, drug or alcohol, are seen as deviant behaviour, whereas work addiction is not considered a form of deviancy. In fact, it is considered quite the opposite, held in high regard, admired and envied by fellow peers, on both a personal and professional level.This means that ‘work’ addiction is harder to unmask as, it is enmeshed as a part of day to day society.

Work addiction like any form of addiction can became a way of life, used as an illusion of relief to avoid unpleasant feelings or situations. An addict will always be searching for, an object or type of event with which to form an addictive relationship, in the belief that they can be sustained by it. This process goes through various stages of ambivalence, vacillation and inconsistency.

The professional help of a counsellor can identify these various stages, to enable the client see which part of the ‘addictive treadmill’ they are on, how and why, they repeat cyclical patterns. The ‘addictive treadmill’ can be described metaphorically as a clock-

12 o’clock: feel under pressure to relax/unwind; this could be due to being rejected and angry from not being offered promotion, or not securing a business transaction, so turn to a not securing a business transaction, so turn to a favourite addiction as a result. 

3 o’clock: you get some relief from your addiction, ‘feel good’ for a while, this may last for minutes, hours or days. It means that you’re able to cope because the addiction has ‘numbed out’ any underlying feelings.

6 o’clock: ‘come down’ reality sets in and the problems and difficulties you tried to escape return. At this stage you may feel guilt, blame and depressed. It is an uncomfortable feeling, so you want to feel ‘good again’ and for short term ‘relief’ turn again to your favourite addiction.

9 o’clock: not only do you act additively again, but you do it to cover your guilt.                               

So the ‘addictive treadmill’ continues until you have crises, such as a major ‘burnout’ or mental breakdown, which can result in losing your job, home and family. Both physical and psychological losses are interwined.  
Counselling can help the client, to cognitively evaluate their circumstances and develop techniques towards ‘self stability’ This can be achieved in conjunction with highlighting areas that promote, a healthier lifestyle, by asking the client to:

  • Keep a diary of events, moods and patterns of behaviour
  • Look their support network ( family, friends, partner etc)
  • Identify chemical addictions (e.g. food, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, nicotine) and emotional addictions (sex, gambling, internet) that the client may have become addicted to, and where these addictions overlap, i.e. is one addiction a catalyst to another?
  • Examine diet, nutrition, exercise, relaxation and sleep patterns

There are differences between rituals and addictive behaviour.  Daily rituals help people to ‘function’ and in many cases bind us to our beliefs and values that connect us to others of a similar mentality, i.e. going to a religious place of worship, which can enhance spirituality, and provide a sense of belonging within a community; or being a member of a club or society, creates a source of friendship, activity or cultural kinship.

Whereas addictive behaviour demonstrates, the need to control, instead of admitting to periods of feeling ‘helpless’ or ‘powerless’ and more importantly admitting to being ‘human’ To restore the work/life balance, professional help can restore the equilibrium and develop an existential view of the world.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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