Madan Mohan Tripathy

I was terribly shocked (but not surprised) when I heard that my elder cousin A. B. Dwivedi, Head of Works in a factory near Kanpur in U.P. suffered a stroke in the works premises while supervising an urgent Capital Repair work and did not recover. The last time I met him was five years earlier in Kanpur when he could give me, of course with a lot of reluctance, a brief appointment at the factory reception counter at 10.30 p.m. just before I went to the railway station to catch the train to Howrah. This appointment had come only by my insistence after staying for two full days at Kanpur and failing to have a glimpse of him, though my sister-in-law had taken good care of me. Nothing to be astonished. I do not remember to have seen him ever in any of the family get-togethers. His children, I am sure, also must have not seen much of him. He was always busy in some work or the other in connection with his job and did not find time for any of his social obligations. He used to take pride in reiterating that he had two wives - the first, obviously, being his job. Though it happened a few years back, it is still fresh in my mind.

Mr. D. Sen, a senior colleague of mine in my erstwhile assignment in an integrated steel plant, highly successful in his career, collapsed on his chair in his office about a couple of years back. About a year back, I had read in a business daily that a front ranking corporate executive suffered from a stroke in the conference room while taking a meeting of his senior colleague, which left him half paralyzed, forcing him to leave his well-paid job for good.

The Greatest Common Factor

All the above persons have a greatest common factor. Guess what? Yes, you are right. They are very successful executives in their own right. They had never looked back in their career, having earned their reputation as committed individuals, getting their annual raises and accelerated promotions others envy, widely respected by colleagues, subordinates and bosses for their single-minded dedication to work.

Underlying factor is addiction

But, an underlying factor, which goes unnoticed, but nevertheless present in all of them is that they were addicts. Yes, I mean addicts; like an alcoholic, or a drug-addict or a gambler or a megalomaniac. Their addiction was power, order and control, but the focus of obsession was work. Their desire for power and control was uncontrollable, which had resulted in frantic, compulsive working. All of them were work-addicts or workaholics, as some prefer to call.

The prettiest addiction

The word addiction triggers a negative image in our mind, only with the exception of Work-Addiction. Single-minded commitment to work has always been revered, worthy of praise and emulation. Hard work is always rewarded by a pat on the back, recognition dinners, awards, raises, approval from superiors, respect from others. accelerated promotions and all those that accompany success. Praises, accolades and rewards add the necessary fuel for furthering the addiction. Of all the addictions, however, work addiction though least recognised, is nevertheless most treacherous because unlike other addictions, there is no social stigma attached to it. Rather, it is a compulsion that is revered and respected for their intensity and productivity on the job. It is rewarded and reinforced by society.

But the net effect of work addiction is no less traumatic than any other addiction. The personal and social costs of work addiction are equally high, if not more. It has the potential to break marriages, destroy families, fracture social relationships, damage own health, increase stress level linking to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and other serious illness and can make the victim emotionally and socially bankrupt. Society at large also suffers through decreased productivity and creativity.

“Work-addiction is the best-dressed addiction” - says Bryan Robinson, noted author of "Chained to the desk". In her book "Working Ourselves to Death", management consultant Diane Fassel calls addiction to work the “cleanest of all addictions”.

Work Addiction is all pervasive

Work Addiction is not exclusive to business executives. It is also not a fact that only people in high-powered jobs fall prey to work addiction. Anybody can be a work addict- whether a professional, an executive, a doctor, a lawyer, a cricketeer, a construction engineer or even a shoemaker or a gardener. There is absolutely no bar. It is really our attitude to work that make us work addicts, rather than the field of our activity.

Problem of work addiction is again not confined to India or any developing country. In fact, problem of work addiction is much more prevalent in developed countries like United States, Germany or Canada. Perhaps the problem is most acute in Japan where an estimated 10,000 deaths occur every year due to overwork. Japanese even have a separate word for death due to overwork – “KAROSHI”

Work addict or workaholic are terms probably coined sometimes in late 60s or early 70s. In the intervening period, it probably had lost much of its luster. Again after the advent of the new century, it has raised its ugly head fuelled by skyrocketing unemployment and the stiff competition all around when all jobs are scarce and good jobs are precious and obviously more competitive.

Is Work Addiction harmful?

Any activity can be addictive if it is done compulsively and to the detriment of other areas of one’s life. By definition itself, addiction hurts the addict and also harms the people around him and so is the work addiction.

Like other addicts, work addicts ignore relationships and extracurricular activities in favour of their habit sacrificing families, friendships, hobbies, vacations and celebrations. When addiction takes over, basic needs for proper food, sleep, exercise, relaxation and freedom to refresh the mind are ignored. Life’s realities are forgotten. It is not uncommon to see such people forgetting their marriage date or birthday of their children. Family conflict is inevitable. They are so busy working that they miss the process of growth and development in their children. Children develop personality disorders because of lack of parental care. Work addicts hardly spare any time for developing or enjoying personal or social relationships

Perhaps the most serious effect of work addiction is that it distances the addict from himself having no time for his own physical, emotional or spiritual wellbeing. Caring for self is low on his priority list. Health problems are often ignored until they become debilitating. Work addicts suffer from a spate of stress disorders including high blood pressure, heart diseases, ulcer, anxiety attacks, burnout and sometimes serious depression leading to suicide.

Researchers have indicated that overwork and excessive anxiety about work create huge surges of adrenaline that floods the body and taxes every physical function, most important being the functioning of the heart. Work addict becomes physically dependent on such adrenaline surge that gives him the necessary high. The adrenaline gives him the illusion that he has an unusual amount of strength, resilience and energy, much like the drug giving strength to a drug-addict. The work addict fails to understand that he is really tired or worn-out or has physical symptoms until a heart attack or stroke surprise him or he collapses with a really catastrophic illness.

How true is the nursery rhyme- “All work and no play;
Makes Jack a dull boy”

Work Addiction is different from Hard work

Let me clarify right now lest I might be misunderstood. It must not be construed that I am spreading a lot of pessimism about hard work. Not at all. I have nothing against hard-work. I am only talking about hard work as an obsession. There is obviously a very thin line of difference between hard-work and work addiction and the line has become thinner and thinner today when the pace of life has quickened. Today, smart phones, car phones, fax machines, wordsapp, twitter, facebook and other social sites and other technological facilities make us accessible and so also accountable 24 hours a day, dissolving the boundary between personal time and working time.

But that thin line of difference makes a big difference. In fact, how long you work is not a test whether you are a work addict or not. How do you spend the rest of the time is a more important determinant. You may not be working for long hours. But, if you are always thinking about work while taking food or watching TV at home, then you must seriously analyze what it is. If you are thinking about your work/office while attending a social get-together or while holidaying in Simla or Mussouri, then you must realise that the panic button is only at arms length. Some behavioural scientists prefer to call it “white knuckling”- going through the motions of social or family activity but in one’s head continuing to work, worry, analyse work problems or make plans.

Another distinction is that the work addict not only works hard but also sets unattainable targets for himself and is beset with a feeling that he is never good enough. This feeling does not allow him to enjoy the fruits of his hard work and makes him myopic to the impact of his overwork on his own health, his well-being and family life. He also has a strong desire to control other people and all situations around him and so he fails to delegate. He harbours a feeling that “Since I want it to be done well, I myself have to do it”. Work addicts feel indispensable and consequently can not delegate responsibility.

It is very difficult for work addicts to relax. They often feel the desire to get a few more works done before they could feel good about themselves and allow them to relax. But, when they accomplish them, they often find few more to complete and then a few more and the vicious cycle continues. These uncontrollable desires result in frantic, obsessive, compulsive working and they do not seem to have the control.

There is absolutely nothing against loving your work

Working hard for long hours to meet a looming deadline, to finish a project and then deriving satisfaction for the job well-done, a feeling of fulfillment for the achievement is absolutely welcome. But making work rule over your life is something you should be careful about.

We need to work hard to establish ourselves, to fortify our reputation, to market our services and to ensure that we are not left out dejected in the corporate ladder. There is almost always a direct correlation between hard work and success. But, a reasonable balance between the work and personal life is a must so that work does not become an all-pervading, all-consuming, end-all, be-all obsession wrecking havoc on marriage, family, social life and personal health.

The life of work-addicts, in contrast, is not within their control. They constantly think about work, feel depressed if they are unable to work, do not have the time or desire to enjoy their accomplishments. They get a high from work and they panic, feel depressed if they do not get the kick. Work addicts are driven and even obsessed with the activity of work rather than being concerned about the result. It is not the work we do that leave us exhausted and drained out, rather it is the way we do it. A lot of time of work addict is spent doing busy work and much more in rechecking their work. He is unable to feel comfortable without the excitement of work. As with other addictions, there is a progressive need to achieve more, much like a drug-addict developing increasing tolerance requiring more drug to get the same high.

Like an addict to smoking or drug or alcohol or gambling, work-addict denies his addiction and vouches that he can leave it anytime he fills like. Persons who are addicted to work are more likely to emphasize to logic and intellect over feelings. Much like the alcoholic uses liquor to self medicate and control or avoid feelings; work provides the needed comfort for the work-addict. Work addicts rationalise taking on more and more job on themselves.

When work is creative and evolving, it is not addictive but is addictive when it is compulsive and sought as an escape from everything else.

Work addiction is very difficult to define and also leave, because it is so close a virtue.

Successful Work-addict

If you want to know about a successful work-addict, you must read the "My experiments with truth" by Mahatma Gandhi or the biography of Winston Churchill authored by Roy Jenkin. Mr. Gandhi was working more than 18 hours everyday and never stressed a bit- a successful leader, a motivator, a good writer, a person loved by one and all, even by his own enemies. People close to him were amazed wherefrom he was in a position to amass so much energy to keep him going. Churchill was in the midst of British politics for 65 years, published voluminous works, was a good painter, was having a loving relationship with his wife, was liked by all his four children because he spent time with them and lived upto 90 years being productive throughout his life span.

Stages of Work-addiction

Work-addiction is not caused suddenly, but progresses by stages. It is difficult to comprehend that a person suddenly wakes up in the morning and finds that he is a work-addict. In fact, it is a continuous process developing in an individual slowly over time taking several months or several years to manifest itself completely. There are four stages of Work-addiction, almost similar to the model of burnout stages suggested by Veninga & Spradley. They are

(i) Honey-moon Stage
(ii) Awakening Stage
(iii) Chronic Symptoms Stage
(iv) Crisis Stage

(i) Honeymoon Stage - Euphoric feeling about the job and the new assignment marks honeymoon stage. The person feels the job is wonderful. He loves his job, develops commitment, and derives high job satisfaction. There is excitement and enthusiasm; he feels the job to be challenging and interesting. Honeymoon indeed. Most of the praises and accolades come when the person is in this stage. But the key issue remains the coping strategies he adopts when confronted with priorities other than the job. At least in theory, if the coping strategy is positive and adaptive, he is likely to continue in the honeymoon stage indefinitely. But, this is a rarity.

(ii) Awakening Stage - In the awakening stage, he struggles to keep his reputation still trying to balance other facets of his life. He is constantly busy taking up more assignment than he could possibly handle. He works regularly overtime to keep up with his own expectation and expectation of his peers and superiors. He refuses to take days off, overdraws on reserves of adaptive energy and works even harder. Fatigue, job-stress sets in.

(iii) Chronic Symptom Stage - In the chronic symptom stage, the work-addict begins to put aside other commitments in favour of work commitment. His personal, family and social life suffers. At this stage, the work-addict thinks about work all the time. He continues to be mentally at work irrespective of his physical presence elsewhere. He becomes increasingly worn-out physically and has difficulty in sleeping. He is exhausted and fatigue including muscle fatigue becomes more prominent. But, the person, without understanding the real cause, works still harder feeling that probably he can cope up by working more and more, something like a drug-addict taking more and more doses to get the desired kick. But, when he finds that working harder does not change things much, job dissatisfaction, disillusionment and disappointment grow.

(iv) Crisis Stage - The fourth stage is the crisis stage. In this stage, the physical symptoms intensify. Addiction to work becomes really problematic. The work addict develops chronic headaches, backaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, and depression. Serious illness such as stroke or heart attack may also result. Physical and mental symptoms become so embodied in the life of the individual that he may be labeled or diagnosed as a serial patient than a work-addiction case. It may be the end of the professional career for the individual.

However, the hopeful point is that it is always possible to initiate action and strengthen one's adopting skills and move back up the ladder towards Stage- 1 i.e. the Honeymoon stage. The hope is not completely lost, but it requires time and a lot of determination from self as well as the organisation.

Myths regarding Work-addiction

There are a lot of myths surrounding work-addiction.

Myth No. 1 - Work addicts are efficient
Paradoxically, work addiction is detrimental to work itself. By nature, the work-addict struggles for control and resists team working and collaboration. He has trouble in delegation of job and responsibility and likes himself to be the master of the show. He also fails to nurture colleagues through encouraging creativity, assigning responsibility and giving due credit. He pushes himself endlessly and relentlessly, but not to much avail. Business gains nothing from overwork of the work-addict.

Myth No. 2 - Work-addicts spent more hours doing the work

Work-addiction is not at all simply a matter how many hours you spend in the office or in front of your personal computer or in the workshop or whatever, more or less like alcoholism is not determined by how many pegs one drinks per se. It is basically a question of your own attitude, your state of mind. A lot of time of work-addicts is spent on doing routine work and rechecking their work. For them, work is like a bottomless pit that can never be filled up, never be completed, even with crazy work schedules and mindless and busy overtime.

Myth No. 3 - Only people in very high places can turn work-addict

In fact, this is not at all the case. A shoemaker or a housewife can also be a work-addict. It is a psychological problem, concerned with the person's attitude and orientation towards work and the life in general.

Myth No. 4 - Work-addicts love their work

This is also not correct. In most cases, work-addiction arises out of an unmet inner need that is insatiable. There is an element of perfectionism operating within a work-addict. They are too task oriented and can never see the big picture and as such are never satisfied.

Are you a work-addict?

After reading the article, let me ask you - Do you like to live a balanced life? Do you wish to live longer? I know the answers. It is 'Yes'. Isn't it?

Then let me ask you a more direct question - Are you a work-addict? If your answer is "No", let me remind you, no work-addict ever confesses that he is one. If you are undecided or for that matter whatever may be your answer, please answer some simple questions and evaluate for yourself.

Answer the questions in a scale from 1 to 5 - 1 meaning never, 2 meaning rarely correct, 3 meaning sometimes correct, 4 meaning often correct, 5 meaning always. Please answer the questions sincerely (to you at least) and do not see the evaluation at the end of the questions, till you answer all the questions sincerely and honestly.

1. Do you feel incapable to say "No" to job demands?
2. Are you easily available and easily contactable by phones or e-mails?
3. Do you miss important family events and social functions because of work pressure?
4. Do you carry files/ office equipment to your home or wherever you go, even on vacations?
5. Do you have difficulty in delegating your work?
6. Are you afraid of failure?
7. Do you feel uncomfortable when you or any of the jobs done by you is criticised?
8. Are you irritable and easily agitated?
9. Do you suffer from poor bowl movements or indigestion or stomach aches or pains?
10. Do you find difficulty in relaxing or do you have mood swings?
11. When you talk to your spouse, do you focus more on your work than on your family matters?
12. When you are on your vacation, do you think about your work or telephone your colleagues to find out that everything is going fine?
13. Do you find yourself very energetic in your workplace, but lethargic and depressed at home?
14. Do you feel sleep or playtime is a big waste?
15. Do your find yourself struggling at your work when your co-workers have finished?
16. Do you get upset when people do not meet your standards of perfection?
17. Do you get upset with yourself making even very minor mistakes?
18. Do you feel comfortable in doing things yourself rather than asking for help?
19. Do you tend to discount yourself as not worthy of praise even when people praise you?
20. Do you try to do two or three things at a time - for example taking lunch and writing a memo?

Now add your points.

If your score is from 20 to 30 - then God save the organisation in which you are working. You are not worth a pie and do not deserve your job.

If score is from 30 to 50 - You are in the Honeymoon stage of work addiction. Go ahead without being worried.

Score 50 to 70 - You are in Awakening Stage. No problem is anticipated as long as you continue in this stage. But, you have got to be careful.

Score 70 to 85 - You are in Chronic Symptom Stage. Be careful and try to reverse the trend before it is too late and out of hand.

Score 85 to 100 - You are in Crisis Stage of Work-addiction and a full-blown work-addict. You have to save yourself from the strangling grip the work-addiction has around you. I can only wish you best of luck.

The AB…..Gs of overcoming work-addiction

1. Acknowledge- The first step in overcoming work addiction is obviously to acknowledge that you are one. Remember work-addiction or workaholism is no longer seen as a respectable vice, but as a serious problem having potential for life threatening consequences. Workaddicts do not do better than any body else. They just burnout faster.

2. Balance - Realise that Work is but one of a number of important aspects of leaving - Family, Spirituality, Social activities, Healthy life style and Leisure & Fun. Work in moderation. Set boundaries between work and personal life. Assign little breaks to your busy schedule. Gradually cut down the numbers of hours worked and distribute proportionately between family, friends and self.

3. Control - Control your health and take care of your physical needs. Plan time for fun, leisure, recreation and hobby. Developing new hobby works miracles for work addicts.

4. Delegation - Work addicts are known to be bad planners and tend to do everything themselves. Learn the art of delegation.

5. Exercise - Do some amount of physical exercises everyday. Spend time in meditation, yoga or Art of Leaving or whatever. This really puts you back on the rails.

6. Failure- Never be afraid of failure. Learn to say "no". A willingness to bear a huge stress burden is definitely not a barometer of your capabilities or abilities to succeed. Refuse to feel guilty when you are not working.
7. Getting a coach - If you still feel you are not in a position to overcome work addiction by following the simple methods mentioned above, do not hesitate in getting a personal coach. Prevention is better than cure.

It is rightly said, " What we live with we learn, and what we learn we practice, and what we practice we become, and what we become has consequences; And almost always who we become has little to do with what we were meant to be." How true? We are the makers of our own destiny and choice is left to us.

Author's Bio: 

The author is a senior HR professional. Can be contacted at madan.tripathy@gmail.com