Work Addiction – When Your Job is Killing You

Brain struggling with Work Addiction

Contributed By: Beth Tesmond, MHS, CADC, MISA, Addictions Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls

The word addiction congers up several visuals: it could be a tragic character on the street corner; a soccer mom with an extreme affinity to Adderall; or a company executive who starts knocking back doubles every day at noon. Each of these describes a substance addiction, which involves chemicals entering the body, but the visuals do not seem to cover work addiction.

Ever increasingly, those in the behavioral health field are treating process or behavioral addictions. This type of addiction is defined by a reliance on internal brain chemicals that are released whenever a person engages in a specific behavior or set of behaviors. As with other addictions, a process addiction is both physiological and psychological.

Work Addiction

person texting on a phoneThis addiction transcends mere commitment to a job. It is a genuine illness that has the capacity to destroy lives. As the person engages in work behaviors, dopamine and adrenaline are released from the reward centers of the brain. This provides a positive, reinforcing feeling of getting high-adrenalizing.

Work becomes an obsession, not a means of obtaining a goal. As such, they have an uncontrollable desire to work excessively, late nights and weekends, texting for work while with family and friends. They can no more “not” work than an alcoholic can “not” pick up that drink on the table in front of them.

They are not addicted to their job; they are addicted to the behaviors associated with the job. Work is the drug.

Those addicted to work typically have high-level corporate positions. More often than not these individuals are rigid, controlling, perfectionistic and inflexible. Although some are narcissistic, by and large, these people often struggle with low self-esteem. Even from a young age, many have felt worthless. It is not unusual for them to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Signs of work addiction include:

  • Preoccupation with work—constant thoughts or discussion about work at inappropriate times.
  • Withdrawal from social activities and loss of interest in hobbies.
  • Working when tired, failing to eat or hydrate throughout the day, possessing a general disregard for physical health.
  • Inability to relax.
  • Lack of trust in subordinates or in colleagues to do a job well; unwilling to share the work load.

Societal Influence and Corporate Culture

The American culture loves a “winner.” Winning translates into money, status, power; most of these attributes are connected to work. When a person is a “workaholic,” it is often seen as a virtue. Rarely, do we see someone in a beautifully tailored suit in a pricey car and think “addict.”

In today’s competitive business world, workaholism is supported, encouraged, and importantly, rewarded. The zealous employee who comes in early, stays late, goes the extra mile, is the one who gets named employee of the month, often with the prominent parking place.

Guy working on computer at coffee houseThis is the person who gets significant raises and earns substantial bonuses at year’s end. Sadly, such kudos only reinforce the addiction.

Interestingly, there is ultimately a diminishing marginal return from this type of employee. Even though they work a great deal, they do not work smart; they often complicate their work load, and due to the refusal to let others in, they cause resentment in the workplace.

Early burn-out is common. Plus, certain health issues are commensurate with this addiction such as cardio-vascular diseases, diabetes, digestive disorders, depression and suicidal tendencies.


Often, help is only sought due to crisis: personal relationships have been destroyed; physical health is in jeopardy; lives have become unmanageable. Most devastating of all to the individual, is entering therapy because the job has been lost.

Mostly, we see women enter treatment with a primary diagnosis of depression or anxiety with a secondary diagnosis of work addiction.
This type of addiction is treated like every other with individual and group therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), 12 step groups utilizing the Workaholics Anonymous book of recovery and expressive therapies.

Through DBT, individuals try to establish what a meaningful life looks like to them. Through strategies such as art therapy, they tap into emotions and the more creative side of their mind; activities such as yoga therapy help put them back in touch with their physical being, something they have under-valued and possibly abused.

Residential treatment proves highly positive for this type of individual because they are completely separated from the workplace. They need to “feel” the anxiety and emotional pain they are experiencing due to the separation and learn new coping techniques for dealing with this stress.

In this addiction, work is to the addict very much as food is to the anorexic. People need to work just as they need to eat. Therefore, the goal of therapy is for the individual to find work/life balance.

We try to ascertain what the corporate culture looks like in the job they currently have; if it is toxic and committed to reinforcing the addiction, we try to formulate a strategy for their return. This includes ongoing therapy, inside and outside of the workplace, and very possibly, a three-to-six-month exit plan.

Remaining in that environment could easily compromise recovery. While in treatment, some people take time to reconsider employment in a whole new area—perhaps something they always wanted to do.

Family Therapy

Group of young people during psychotherapy, horizontalFamily involvement in the treatment process is always important; with this addiction, it is imperative. Role modeling is a very real thing. If a parent worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, that was the standard that was set. The implied message is that to work less is to be inadequate, to be “less than.”

This is never to blame the parent’; instead, it is just to establish understanding. It is not unusual for other siblings to be struggling similarly, since they were brought up with the same example of work ethic; therefore, the entire family can benefit.

The therapeutic interventions would focus on looking at and changing maladaptive beliefs and familial thought patterns as well as family environments.

About the author:

Beth TesmondBeth oversees the Addiction Therapy program, including staff supervision, quality improvement of the Addictions Program, and training TK staff in substance abuse. Beth received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology Clinical Counseling from Saint Xavier University. She earned her Master of Health Science in Addictions Studies from Governors State University. She is a Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor (CADC) and is certified in Mental Illness Substance Abuse (MISA). She is a member of Citizens Organized for Recovery and Education (C.O.R.E.).

Thank you to Timberline Knolls for providing this article.

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Timberline Knolls is a leading residential treatment center for women and adolescent girls, ages 12 and older, with eating disorders, substance abuse, trauma, mood and co-occurring disorders. Located in suburban Chicago, residents receive excellent clinical care from a highly trained professional staff on a picturesque 43-acre wooded campus. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is also available in nearby Orland Park, Ill., for women to step down or direct admit. For more information on Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, call 630-755-5173. We are also on Facebook – Timberline Knolls, LinkedIn – Timberline Knolls and Twitter – @TimberlineToday.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on March 1, 2016
Reviewed and Updated by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 11, 2021
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