Workaholism and Addiction are Co-Occurring Problems for Many People

Workaholism and addiction, and simply work and addiction, go hand in hand with many people. There are occupations that are extremely stressful every day, and others that have episodes of high stress periodically. Many in such occupations will turn to substances to manage stress. However, one does not have to have a high-pressure job to be a workaholic or to abuse substances, of course. There are underlying issues that cause us to turn to compulsive activity or substance use that have nothing to do with the work we do. Consequently, across the wide range of diverse occupations, workaholism and co-occurring substance problems are perhaps more prevalent than you may think.

Compulsive Work and Its Similarities to Substance Abuse

While it is not a formal psychological diagnosis, workaholism shares many characteristics and dynamics of any other addiction. Basically, it is an addiction to work and not necessarily just the work by which one supports him or herself. It can be a compulsive need to keep busy with any activity or even various activities. The core characteristics of any addiction are compulsion, obsession, denial, a tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms. Whether one’s addiction is ingesting substances or acting out in some way such as shopping or gambling, these core characteristics are involved.

Compulsive working is often a companion to substance problems because they are similar in their dynamics, and they serve as temporary coping strategies for the same types of problems. In both issues, one is able to relieve stress temporarily, and cope with and avoid other life issues such as relationships, or responsibilities in the home. Compulsive activities also help us have a sense of control over difficult emotional or mental states. Many people combine the two — overwork and substance use–in a frantic effort to cope with high-stress periods of their lives. Of course, too, both compulsive activities set up a vicious cycle between them, feeding into each other. For example, overwork leaves one with very little downtime and substances may be used to quickly relax. Also, substance problems deepen our stress and distress, leaving life at large to become more unmanageable. A workaholic will turn to work more as such distress escalates.

There are some occupations in which this seems to be particularly the case. For example, people with daily high-stress jobs such as first responders or executives are vulnerable to both work addiction and substance problems. Also, people who have co-occurring mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or unresolved trauma are vulnerable to combining a work addiction with a substance problem. Finally, people who experience a time in which there are many life stressors or one significantly overwhelming stressor such as in the home, in a relationship or after significant loss, often turn to both work and substances to cope. Unfortunately, neither overwork or over-reliance upon substances will remedy the underlying or coexisting problem. Instead, the risk is that one’s original problem will worsen, and a substance problem will develop on top of it.

Workaholism, Substances and Relationship Problems

Both workaholism and substance abuse can negatively impact all realms of one’s life such as the physical, mental, emotional, familial, social and spiritual aspects of life. When combined, the effects escalate. Relationships are an area in which the negative effects of these compulsive behaviors can be especially prevalent and noticeable. Both remove one from direct, genuine and authentic interactions with others–whether they be co-workers, clients, patients, partners, children, other family members, or friends. On the one hand, work literally removes us from involvement with other people. We might spend time in the workplace, working late hours or going in early, taking time away from our involvement at home or in relationships. We might also use our work schedules to avoid other responsibilities and involvement in social or family activities.

Similarly, intoxication removes us from whatever situation we are in when we are intoxicated. We can be at home, with partners or family members, but use substances to be removed from the situation. Consequently, both activities become avoidance strategies whether we intend them to or not. Both compulsive activities place similar strains upon our loved ones and any other relationships we may have. For example, our relationships with coworkers, friends, and the community at large are also affected. Essentially, we can retreat behind excessive work and substance use from all of the above.

Denial is often at play for people who overwork or abuse substances, and it is particularly problematic for people who do both. On the one hand, our denial is reinforced when we overwork if we think we simply have a good work ethic, or we need to work to support ourselves and our families. With regard to substance abuse, denial is a cardinal characteristic of a substance problem. We don’t just simply lie about having a problem with drugs or alcohol, we simply don’t see that we have one. All of this interferes with the establishment and maintenance of healthy relationships

Withdrawal, Workaholism and Substance Abuse

Many people find it unusual that a person could have withdrawal from a behavior such as overworking. However, keep in mind that compulsive work is in place in one’s life as a coping strategy for uncomfortable feelings or situations. When we are unable to use a compulsive coping strategy, the feelings and situations we are trying to avoid will become more apparent. Consequently, we will feel an increased urge to engage in our compulsive behavior. We will feel as we feel when withdrawing from a substance, and become mentally preoccupied with using (or working) again.

Other Consequences of Compulsive Work and Substance Abuse

The negative consequences of an addictive process range far and wide in our lives, leaving us with problems in our

mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional selves. We also experience behavior problems, relationship problems and at times, legal and financial ones. Due to denial, it is common for people who have either or both workaholism and a substance problem to believe that no one is affected but themselves. However, this is not true.

In the workplace, even people who are not addicted to substances, but who are addicted to work, can create many problems. For example, workaholics often assume more responsibility and consequently, a sense of entitlement about the workplace and how things are to be done. This can occur even when the workaholic is not in a position of authority. Also, a workaholic maybe so invested in the work and workplace that here she begins to think of it as their primary domain and to behave as if it is their personal rather than shared domain. Workaholics can also become deeply embroiled in negative feelings and conflicts with other people in the workplace because they are so invested in their activity there and are trying to suppress other issues that are not given expression.

The same is true of people with substance problems in the workplace. Other coworkers or colleagues are impacted by an addict’s declined performance and declined ability to communicate and cooperate well with others, as well as to have good judgment and good decision-making and problem-solving abilities. A person who is impaired by compulsive substance use may not recognize these declining areas of performance, but others will, even if they cannot identify the source of the issues.

Substances Problems in Various Occupations

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) reports that in the workplace, negative outcomes occur when employee abuse alcohol and drugs after work hours. Absenteeism, rapid turnover, and acting out behaviors in the workplace are common effects of employee substance abuse. SAMHSA research has also found that across workplaces and occupations, certain industries are more affected by substance abuse. They state that the lowest rates of substance abuse were found in education, healthcare and social assistance, and public administration. Higher rates of substance use were found to be in mining, construction, food services and hospitality related occupations.

Among occupations with low substance abuse rates (according to The National Survey on Drug Use and Health) are police officers and other justice workers, bookkeepers, therapists, childcare workers, lab techs, dentists, and physicians. In contrast, the same survey found that the following occupations have the highest alcohol use rates specifically:

  1. Construction workers–17.8%
  2. Repair, installation or maintenance workers–14.7%
  3. Food service or food preparation workers–12.1%
  4. Shipping and transport workers–11.2%
  5. Sales workers–10.2%
  6. Workers in production jobs-9.7%
  7. Building maintenance personnel–9.5%
  8. Farmers, foresters and those in fisheries–9.5%
  9. Workers in protective services–8.7%
  10. Engineers, architects, and surveyors–8.3%

And, the following occupations are among those with the highest rate of illegal substance use

  1. Food service or food preparation worker–17.4%
  2. Construction worker–15.1%
  3. Workers in entertainment, sports, design and the arts–12.4%
  4. Workers in sales–9.6%
  5. Repair, installation and maintenance workers–9.5%
  6. Workers in the forestry, fishing or farming–8.7%
  7. Workers in the transportation and shipping–8.4%
  8. Building maintenance personnel–8.2%
  9. Personal service workers– 7.7%
  10. Office or administrative assistants–7.5%

If You or a Loved One Need Help

If you recognize yourself or a loved one in this information, it may be time to get help. We can help you negotiate this difficult time in your life by offering you our free consultation service. Our job is to get you or your loved one the best information we can about the treatment programs that would best meet your clinical needs, preferences, and insurance coverage.

Recovery is more than possible, and yours can begin as soon as you reach out for help. Let us help you navigate the overwhelming amount of information out there and make this difficult time a bit easier for you and your loved ones.