March 29, 2006
Workaholics struggle to say ‘No’ to work
By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sam used to sneak into his office
before dawn so no one would know how many extra hours he
worked. Charles goes on all-night work binges to meet
deadlines, and Susan can't say no to volunteer projects, social
clubs, bridge games, choral singing, lectures and classes.
Each one is a member of Workaholics Anonymous, a 12-step
recovery program for compulsive workers based upon the
structure of Alcoholics Anonymous. Each one opted to keep their
"It's been called the addiction that society applauds,"
said Mike, a physician and member of the group known as WA.
"People brag about it and say, 'I'm a workaholic,"' he
said. "But workaholics burn out and then you've lost them or
they become very dysfunctional and bitter and cynical in the
organization and corrosive."
Workaholics Anonymous keeps no central count of members,
but organizers estimate dozens of weekly meetings are held in
the United States as well as in Germany, Switzerland, Austria
and Britain. The group also sells about 100 books about WA a
month via its Web site, according to organizers.
WA's roots go back to 1983, when a New York corporate
financial planner and a school teacher founded a group based on
AA but designed to fight compulsive working.
WA identifies workaholics as people who often are
perfectionists and worriers, derive their self esteem from
work, keep overly busy, neglect their health, postpone
vacations and overschedule their lives.
Workaholics don't even have to have a job; they can just be
compulsively busy as they seek an adrenaline high, to overcome
feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem and to avoid
intimacy, it says.
The weekly meeting in New York draws an average of a half
dozen people in a city that might be considered a hotbed of
workaholism. Such meager attendance invites the predictable
joke that most workaholics are too busy to attend meetings, a
quip that organizer Charles has heard a million times.
"People think it's funny," he said. "It's amusing until you
hear the stories. There have been many people who have come,
and work is destroying their lives."
Unlike alcoholics, who can measure recovery by their days
of sobriety, workaholics have no quantifiable gauge of their
problem, or their recovery.
"In my case, my boss was telling me I had to get my work
hours down to 40 a week, and I couldn't do it," said Sam, a
former senior project engineer in California's Silicon Valley.
"I was sneaking into work at 5 a.m. on a Sunday so I could
get work done and be out of the place before anyone else showed
up," he said. "I didn't want people to see how much time I was
"Now I'm more willing to try to do a mediocre job and keep
my own mental health and sanity than to do the perfect job on
everything I attempt," he said.
Like AA, WA uses a 12-step program for recovery from
addiction. At meetings, members share their experiences and
study the organization's literature and guidelines.
"It really forces you to look inside and say, 'What's
really going on with me?"' said Charles. "A lot of people don't
want to do that."
Even if workaholism is hard to define, you know it when you
feel it, said Mike, who has left his high-pressure urban job
for work at a rural clinic where cows wander outside.
"After a while one gets a feeling of what driven,
compulsive working feels like," he said. "There's a tightness
to it. There's a lot of adrenaline surging. There's a lot of
"There's a lot of preoccupation, which is different from
just waking up in the morning and saying, 'Wow, I really love
what I do'," he said.