07.08.13 Career & Finances

At What Cost? The Price of Workaholism

At What Cost? The Price of Workaholism

BY Dr. Peggy Drexler

In her conversation with Amanda, comedian Whitney Cummings admits that her biggest vice isn’t wine, or chocolate, or perhaps the occasional cigarette, but an oftentimes-unhealthy addiction to her career. “I define ‘vice’ as something that you enjoy that is also bad for you,” Whitney says. “And I’d probably say work. Sometimes I take it a little too far.” As a research psychologist currently studying women in the workplace, this love-hate relationship with work is something I hear women describe with increasing frequency. At a time when more females are embarking on, and staying with, careers that are fulfilling and personally relevant—that is, for rewards other than simply money—I’m seeing so many of them inextricably, and all-consumingly, link their professional success with self-worth. This can be both empowering and dangerous.

Being busy can be a badge of honor. Busy people are important, needed. They’re successful, often well compensated. “Almost everyone I know is busy,” wrote essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider in a New York Times op-ed that went viral last year. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Busy people, he wrote, may feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work, and in my research I’ve seen this a lot. For women, part of the need to be busy may be due to the fact that the country is emerging from a recession, during which the most desirable jobs—or jobs in general—were tough to come by. It may also have something to do with the lingering notion that great opportunities for women are still rarer than they are for men, and as such must be strived for with unflagging determination and drive.

There’s no doubt that hard work can reap great rewards. But how hard is too hard? Back in 1983, one study looking at workaholism defined workaholics as those who work at least 50 hours a week, a relatively low measure by today’s standards. But many who work hard are working for reasons beyond the benefits good work provides. Workaholism isn’t just a “humble-brag,” something akin to describing your biggest flaw as being “a perfectionist,” but a real affliction that can signal genuine inner conflict. Being busy can serve as a Band-Aid for other issues, a way to numb undesirable feelings or fill certain voids, much in the way that alcohol might do for an alcoholic or sex for a sex addict. Working too hard can be a symptom of not being able to turn off—at all. As Kreider writes, busy people “may be addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” And as Whitney says in her conversation with Amanda, fitting in as many as six stand-up gigs a night when she first started out was what helped keep her sane throughout her 20s. “I was in a lot of pain,” Whitney says.

Certainly, using work as a distraction is healthier than downing a bottle of vodka alone on a Tuesday evening. But workaholism has very real consequences. Constantly being at— or even talking or thinking about—work can come at the cost of everything else in life, including family and other relationships, health, and, ultimately job satisfaction.

Work, though, is a hard habit to shake. For many modern women, the slide into workaholism is almost genetic. Women today are among the first generation to have been raised by mothers who, as a whole, placed importance not just on a job, but a career. Whitney recalls childhood memories of her own mother wearing heels and toting a briefcase, and running out the door. “It never occurred to me that women shouldn’t work,” Whitney says.

Which, of course, is an important message to deliver. Women should work. Work can be as empowering and fulfilling as it is financially necessary. It can enable independence and provide a sense of self. But it’s important to remember that work is but one part of a full life. And that sometimes, the best way to ensure you’ll love your job tomorrow as much as you do today is to know when to call it quits.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, author, speaker, and a regular featured contributor to a range of publications and Web sites – from The Huffington Post to Psychology Today to HelloGiggles. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Peggy has spent her career studying the magic and mysteries of families. Her recent book: Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers And The Changing American Family, explores the powerful – and sometimes surprising – connection between dads and a new generation of independent, accomplished women. Peggy’s bestselling book, the highly acclaimed Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men, is a seminal work in the social sciences. It offers an illuminating look at how single mothers by choice, chance and circumstance and two-mother lesbian families are raising happy, healthy and masculine young men. The book was nominated for the Books for a Better Life award and the Lamda Literary award. Peggy can be found on  Facebook, Twitter @DrPeggyDrexler and on her Website.


  • Well this of course spoke to me . I define an “ism” as anything that is obsessive , i MUST do , that is a place I hide out in , that “fixes” me in some way . At times my work certainly qualifies but I am really aware of when I slip into compulsive behavior and know how to detach .. Thanks for this piece Peggy ..

    • Jess

      Amanda, I’m a 25 year old workaholic, I own and run a marketing agency as well as lead a minutely-succssful career in art – while other things in my life are important to me, like my relationships (with self and others), activism, exploration, ect. my work always comes out on top and is the one thing I can count on to be consistently fulfilling. I think it’s interesting that you define this as a compulsive behaviour, I’ve never thought of it that way and that kind of makes more sense than I’d want to admit! I feel like my “dreams” (meaning where I see myself being/doing in the future) get bigger and heavier every day – being relatively young, I do worry from time to time that I’ll burn myself out from constantly being in overdrive and then will be left to compromise… I wonder if this is a worry exclusive to woman, and if so, why? I can’t imagine which of the hard-working men I know who would consider their job as being a compulsive behaviour.

  • Shazzy

    I come from a home where my mother never worked, and emphasis was placed on finding a secure man. That meant fiscally, as my father was never around but we had a large house, 3 luxury cars and an inground pool. I was dating the man I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with until we broke up last yr. I devoted all my time and effort into getting my dream job, and I did it! In the past year I’ve thrown myself into my work and have received praise from my peers and superiors, already receiving a promotion in a highly competitive field. But still, after my 12 hour days and I’m finally alone whether its in the shower or having dinner standing up at the counter, my mind thinks abt how I am alone and therefore NOT successful. I find myself in a deep depression by Sunday as there is a lull in my workload. I am really trying to find a balance in my work and social life and giving myself credit for my hard work. Although it is a struggle for me I receive a lot of love and support from amazing friends and family.

    • Work can be a great place to escape into , but i try to remember that no matter where I go , there i am . Keep seeking balance and you will find it ..

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