Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Character Stereotypes: The Workaholic

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

Main Entry: work•a•hol•ic
Pronunciation: \wurk-uh-ˈhaw-lik, -hol-ik\
Function: noun
1 : a person who works compulsively at the expense of other pursuits

You won’t find workaholism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But according to research, Americans work an average of 200 hours more a year than they did in 1970. That’s almost an extra month.

Of course, with those longer hours come fatter paychecks and bigger accolades, both of which society and culture esteem. But what happens when work supersedes other areas of life?

Dr. Bryan Robinson wrote Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, a manual of sorts for partners, children, and clinicians working with these people. Robinson has a quick quiz you can take for your characters (or yourself!) to determine if they are workaholics.

On a scale from one to five, with five being the most satisfied and one being the least, have your character rate his satisfaction with his family life, friendships, health and hobbies. If his total is fewer than ten points, read on.

The following psychological insights will be helpful for you to make your workaholic characters more realistic.

1) Childhood Factors

Workaholics often grew up as perfectionists, whether self-imposed or otherwise. It’s painful for a child to realize that she might never live up to her parents’ expectations, but she might still strive to meet them. Focusing on schoolwork or being consumed by a hobby or sport helps a child avoid dealing with painful emotions, and they carry this skill into adulthood, masking it as workaholism.

It’s also likely that workaholics come from a family where addiction or other parental mental problems were prevalent. A boy who loses his childhood sense of play and carefreeness in order to cook, clean, and play “brother’s keeper” to his younger siblings might be set on the pathway to workaholism. Out of necessity they learn from an early age what responsibility feels like, and this responsibility gives them control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Later in life, it becomes even more uncomfortable to give up this sense of control.

2) Emotional Factors

Here’s an interesting tidbit about workaholics: They aren’t addicted to the actual work they do. They can be lawyers or garbage collectors, secretaries or CEOs. Workaholics are addicted to the alleviation of stress and anxiety that their professions or trades provide. They go to work to evade unresolved emotional issues, and it’s the evasion that is addictive.

That’s not to say that every workaholic has to have emotional baggage they don’t want to wade through, but it’s far more

likely than a workaholic who overworks himself for the “sake of the cause.” For example, a social worker might truly want to help foster children—indeed, it might be her deepest desire—but fighting off the underlying emotional issues of her own stint in foster care years ago might be what drives her to work those late night hours.

3) Social Factors

Friends aren’t high on the average workaholic’s priority list. In fact, friends and family members might bring with them a host of obligations, commitments, or—gasp!—feelings that are most unwelcome. Other people are unpredictable and therefore outside the workaholic’s scope of regulation and control. Having significant friendships and relationships present far too many variables with which to contend, and can often be catalysts that send the workaholic back to his or her desk.

Workaholics will often make and break commitments to loved ones because they don’t know how to set limits on their work in order to engage in frivolous “play.” When they do go to the movies or out to dinner, often they aren’t mentally present. As you can imagine, intimate relationships would be difficult to nigh impossible as a result. Many workaholics consequently present in therapy with relationship troubles.

Here are two fail-proof ways to spice up a scene with a workaholic:

1) Put them on a deadline and cut their Internet access.

Like the Visa commercial in which everything comes to a complete stop, so is the world of a workaholic with no cell phone towers, charged laptop batteries, or e-mail access.

2) Combine an important business meeting with a social outing.

Put a workaholic in his business skin and transplant him into a playful environment like a cocktail party or gala fund-raiser event to ratchet the tension. As the hero cozies up to a potential client to land a sale, he will consider an attractive heroine an unwelcome distraction, especially if she’s attracting not only the client but the workaholic as well!


The Character Thrapist