Pronunciation: \wurk-uh-ˈhaw-lik, -hol-ik\
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!