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Sliding from Hard Worker or Overachiever into Workaholic Tendencies

Woman surrounded by folders and papers on her desk.

“Workaholism is not a virtue; it’s a vice that can rob you of your health, happiness, and relationships. A hard worker knows how to work smart, not just hard, and enjoys the fruits of their labor.”

–Anonymous

Hard Working Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult

By the sixth grade at 12 years of age, I was a self-proclaimed hard worker. Hardworking means constantly, regularly, or habitually engaged in earnest and energetic work.1 Hard workers are engaged, diligent, industrious, energetic, and committed.

Evidence of my hardworking behavior was apparent in the time and energy I spent on a weekly grade school writing assignment. My sixth-grade teacher assigned the class 10 vocabulary words, which we were to use correctly in a fictitious story that we each developed. I enjoyed this creative task because it increased my vocabulary and at the same time, I used my imagination to generate an interesting paragraph or two.

First, I looked up each word and recorded the definition. Secondly, I ensured that I understood the definition so I could use the word correctly. Third, surveying the list of definitions, I wove together a narrative. I found the task thought-provoking and time-consuming, but very gratifying when finished. Wanting to complete the exercise to the best of my ability, I spent the amount of time I felt necessary to accomplish that.

Thus, began the trait of conscientiousness interspersed with seedlings of perfectionism as it related to the completion of a task.

What is a Hard Worker?

Throughout my school years and early work years as an administrative assistant and office manager, I exhibited the same degree of dedication and conscientiousness extended to the sixth-grade vocabulary and writing exercise. I committed to performing both school-related assignments and work tasks to the best of my ability. This was also true for tasks in my personal life, whether interests, hobbies, or sports.

In the context of work, a hard worker does not stop until the job is done. Such an employee does whatever it takes to accomplish the task and most importantly, completes it on time. Hard workers take their jobs seriously and perform them effectively and efficiently.

As a hard worker, I possessed these qualities:

  • Punctuality
  • Perseverance
  • Initiative
  • Motivation
  • Strong work ethic

What is an Overachiever?

Although I viewed myself as a hard worker, starting in high school and later in graduate school, some people referred to me as an overachiever. An overachiever is someone who achieves success over and above the standard or expected level, especially at an early age.8 This was a label I did not understand. From my perspective, anything I attempted to achieve had nothing to do with surpassing an arbitrary standard. And besides, why did it matter if I attempted to achieve success over and above the expected level? And why did the term sound derogatory? It was just me wanting to reach a goal.

In the context of work, overachievers can also be hard workers. They enjoy their work and have a balance between their professional and personal lives. Overachievers are motivated by intrinsic factors, such as passion and curiosity. Therefore, being an overachiever is not a negative if it doesn’t interfere with your well-being and happiness.

Sliding into Workaholism

After completing a certificate in Technical Communications in the nineties, I accepted my second job in the high-tech arena in 1998 as a technical writer, working for a large software developer. The first director that I reported to announced to the members of my work group that the job was not a 40-hour-per-week job. This meant that she expected us to spend more than 40 hours per week working.

Over time, the management personnel changed, but the job expectations did not. To meet the expectations, my behavior changed from that of a hard worker or overachiever to exhibiting some, but not all, of the following workaholic behaviors:

  • I would not hesitate to sacrifice time with my husband for work.
  • I allowed work to interfere with my health by losing sleep, rescheduling medical and dental appointments, or foregoing my joy—exercise in the form of aerobic dance and kickboxing.
  • In the first five years on the job, I struggled to psychologically detach from work, which resulted in ongoing rumination causing stress and anxiety.
  • In striving for excellence, my perfectionism became apparent.
  • I did not like delegating my work to others, feeling that their performance standards were different or lower than mine.
  • I was driven by fear of failure.

What is a Workaholic?

Workaholism, or work addiction is a compulsion to work excessively hard and long hours. It often stems from a compulsive need to achieve status and success. A workaholic feels guilty or anxious when not working and finds it difficult to leave work issues at the office, whether the office is a remote location or the house or apartment. Work addiction in this context is often driven by job expectations and the company culture.

Workaholism is also driven by a need to escape emotional stress, such as past or current trauma. Workaholism driven by trauma is an attempt to address unmet needs. Perfectionism, neuroticism, or low self-esteem are often behind a slavish devotion to work. In general, workaholics tend to be more conscientious, extroverted, and neurotic than non-workaholics.

A partial list of workaholic characteristics includes the items listed below. These characteristics are in addition to the behaviors I exhibited in the Sliding into Workaholism section.

  • Consistently working extremely long hours. A need to feel busy. Valuing work over leisure.
  • Not taking vacation time. Or if a vacation is taken, spending more time working than relaxing.
  • Coming to work sick, making it difficult to rest and heal.
  • Often missing family or social time, thereby sacrificing relationships for work.
  • Feeling guilty and insecure if not constantly working or worrying about work.2

Link Between Child Abuse and Workaholism

Researchers, clinicians, and people who self-identify as workaholics believe the connection between trauma and overwork is likely. Some people believe coping with trauma is at the very heart of a work addiction. When workaholics are also trauma survivors, learning to remain in the present, rather than the past or future, may assist in holding unresolved emotions at bay which they use work to avoid.7

Compelling evidence exists that some people treat their emotional problems with work. Many studies have shown a strong association between workaholism and anxiety or depression. A common assumption is that compulsive work leads to these disorders.4

But some psychologists have argued the reverse: people may treat their depression or anxiety with workaholic behavior. In some instances, workaholism develops as an attempt to reduce uncomfortable feelings of anxiety or depression.4 For me, this is only partially true. As an emotional abuse survivor, I’ve shown a proclivity toward anxiety since childhood. My anxiety reached new heights during the first five years of high-tech employment when faced with ongoing stringent deadlines, high

expectations, and a heavy workload. This included suffering periodic waves of anxiety when I worried about the job over the weekends.

To cope with it, I joined a therapy group focused on anxiety. I also identified the job factors that were causing the anxiety and took steps to mitigate them. Additionally, I purchased a workbook titled The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne, Ph.D.,3 which was highly informative.

In the workplace, three events gradually unfolded that helped my anxiety significantly as it related to the job: 1) I developed close working relationships with the subject matter experts who reviewed my work, 2) Parts of the job unexpectedly changed for the better, and 3) I gained overall confidence in performing my job. Thereafter, I felt periodic stress based on workload or deadlines, but not relentless, gut-wrenching anxiety.

American Work Culture

Some people think that the American work culture fosters workaholism, while others disagree. There are different perspectives and factors to consider when discussing this issue. Ultimately, it depends on one’s situation, preferences, and goals. Some companies reward workaholism by giving workaholics raises or promotions for their unhealthy habits.7

American work culture is a mixture of The American Dream and the Hustle Culture. The American Dream concept says that regardless of who you are, where you came from, or what your opportunities are, if you work hard enough and long enough, you can achieve your dream. The Hustle Culture implies that the harder you work, the more you can achieve. Thus, if you keep trying and don’t give up, you can always become something better. Embedded in these concepts is the notion of entrepreneurism. The US work culture champions the individual and applauds our endless passion for The Next Big Thing and working hard to manifest it.6.

Along with the work culture concepts are two philosophies or ways of viewing work and life. Some employees work to live while others live to work.

Working to live means that the individual works for a wage to pay rent or a mortgage and other bills. She most likely participates in hobbies, travels, and spends time with friends and family. Those who work to live perform their jobs well, but they don’t consider their careers a top priority in the context of their lives, except in economic terms.

On the other hand, individuals who live to work put greater emphasis on their careers. Their lives center around their work. These people view their jobs or careers as their main priority and de-emphasize their personal life.

Workaholism as a Mental Disorder?

Clinicians do not agree on whether workaholism is a true addiction. It is not listed in the DSM-5, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This volume is the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the US. Disagreement exists as to whether workaholism should be considered an addiction. Recognizing workaholism as a clinical issue may also be complicated by the degree to which the American culture values work.

Final Thoughts

Survivors, if dysfunctional work behavior has made your life unmanageable, help is readily available if you view yourself as falling somewhere on the workaholic spectrum. Recognizing the differences between hard-working, overachieving, and workaholic behaviors is the first step.

If you’re a trauma survivor, the line between working hard and working compulsively may be blurred. Through talk therapy, 12-step programs, or other support groups, the goal is to examine your underlying motivations. For some trauma survivors, compulsive work is an untreated survival mechanism.7

Related Blog Post

How Emotional Abuse Fueled My Addictions

Resources

Workaholics Anonymous (WA)

Emotions Anonymous (EA)

References

1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hardworking

2Workaholic culture: Why it doesn’t work, how to fix it.” By Lisa Jasper. Insperity.com.

3. The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook. By Edmund J. Bourne, Ph.D. 5/1/2020.

4. The Hidden Link Between Workaholism and Mental Health.” By Arthur C. Brooks. February 2, 2022. The Atlantic.

5. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR)

6. American work culture explained.” By Adriana Stein. Updated November 7, 2022. Lingoda.

7. Do Some Trauma Survivors Cope by Overworking?” By Tanya Paperny. February 16, 2017. The Atlantic.

8. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/overachiever

Additional Reading

Chained to the Desk (Third Edition): A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners, and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them. By Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D. February 21, 2014.

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