When is Workaholism...Bad?


Posted on January 3, 2013 by Blake Leath

Intriguingly, I’ve had four separate yet equally intense interactions recently with clients who have identified themselves—or been identified by others—as “workaholics.” 

Too much of anything, be it rest/relaxation, exercise, eating (regardless the meal) can be a bad thing.  After all, it’s the opposite of balance and moderation.

So when does work broach holism (Greek for ‘all, whole, entire, total’)?  At what point does one’s love for work become more destructive than constructive, more toxic than healthy, more problematic than advantageous?

Well first, let me share what four clients recently said about work, and explain why I found it fascinating:

  • Client 1: “I rise early, stay late and often skip lunch because I’M A MAN POSSESSED AND LOVE WHAT I DO!  My wife will hound me, ‘What did you eat for lunch today’ and I have no defense.  Lunch never crossed my mind.  I sat down at 8:30 and the next time I looked up it was past 2:00.”
  • Client 2: “I’m the guy who gets pumped on Sunday because TOMORROW’S MONDAY!”
  • Client 3: “Is it a problem that I love what I do and would do it every waking hour if no one stopped me?”
  • Client 4: “[Malcolm] Gladwell writes about ‘10,000’ hours to mastery.  Piece ‘o cake; blew by that a long time ago!”


Here we have four people, representative of others, to be sure, who obviously love what they do, become consumed by it, and wonder what all the fuss is about ‘work’ and ‘since when' did it became a dirty word?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to submit any counter-arguments to their attestations, because they actually sound a lot like me, but I will say this: work becomes workaholism when it crowds, clouds and chokes other people and interests in ‘exclusionary’ ways.  It’s not the work itself that’s the problem, it’s the consequences and collateral damage. 

To say it most efficiently: when work so defines one’s personhood that it prohibits the flourishing of anything else, Houston, we have a problem.

Loving one’s work, one’s job is actually not a curse.  Quite the contrary, it is a blessing.  One becomes absorbed, possessed, and time literally flies by.  This is a wonderful, zone-y state in which to perform, excel, love, live.

But when your spouse, children, or significant others rarely see you—or rarely get to visit with you because you always have your nose in your phone, your eyes on the screen or your butt in the office, well, that simply won’t do.

Not for long.

There’s certainly burnout, though more likely for workaholics is to experience the inevitability of dropped relationships.  Late arrivals.  Missed appointments.  Slipped schedules.  Leaky end-times.  Broken promises.  Eroded reliability and credibility. 

There are few blessings more deep and rich than to love one’s work.  In fact, as I’ve written before and you may recall, the word ‘vocation’ derives from the Latin ‘vocare,’ which means ‘to be called.’  And Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and progenitor of logotherapy argued decisively about the importance of ‘finding meaning in one’s work and life itself.’ 

I find that for those who truly love what they do for a living, work is a career, not a job.  Effort and time simply fly by.  In short, their entire life is richer because their work-life is rich.

In such instances, I think of work as ‘vocare-therapy,’ because one is abundantly fulfilled by work and derives great joy from it.

But to love one’s work at the price of family, of spirituality, of outside interests, hobbies or personal pursuits is to ski along the edge of a razor.  Sooner or later, one will lose his or her balance, slip and pay the inevitably high price.

In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still,” but don’t do so in isolation, at the expense of relationships that matter, or to the detriment of yourself and all that you might be—were you to broaden your horizons.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t be the fool who strives to work so tirelessly, valiantly, or sacrificially from the age of 18 to 58 in the hope of collecting seashells for thirty years thereafter.  These people often forfeit too much along the way and, with little to do in their twilight years that ‘gives back’ or ‘adds to others,’ they generally find ‘retirement’ to be the most onerous season of all.  Especially in light of declining health and barely-known children who have long since moved on and whose wings eclipsed any shallow roots.

Don’t wither and fade in the 4th quarter of your life; find something to do that is altruistic and contributory, just as Bob Buford describes so wisely in Halftime.  After all, if the first forty years are about success, you owe it to yourself—and others—to make the final forty about significance.