When work takes over life

21. Sep 2020 | Articles

Post author: Kert Grünberg

Kert Grünberg
Holistic regression therapist

Workaholism is a type of addiction that is often considered a matter of honour in society. Anton Hansen Tammsaare said: “Work hard and love will follow.” Considering the mostly sedentary way of life we have today, there’s a possibility of ending up with a heart attack instead. Relationships with one’s children and partner suffer because the workaholic is very self-centred. It’s difficult to count on them because their work never ends; they can’t rest or focus on family because their work is with them, on the smartphone, all the time; and they get irritated easily because work creates stress.

Dependency on work and, similarly, on sports are both addictions that we cannot see as a real and serious threat to health and family life. Yet in a close relationship, addiction to one’s job is as destructive as alcoholism. Like an alcoholic, a workaholic also has cycles or periods where the addiction is active and pauses when the pace of life slows down. As addiction worsens, periods of labour mania grow longer and the pauses grow shorter.

Anni was young and talented. Everything she did was always done perfectly and quickly. She grabbed hold of each good job that offered new challenges. These opportunities gave her strength and inspired her to move forward. The work was easy for her to deal with. Over the years, Anni became the manager of a major company who was envied and admired. She worked every weekend, and often during vacations. But inside, Anni was constantly dissatisfied with herself, and she couldn’t understand why. Externally, everything was perfect.

Workaholics value themselves and others based on achievements. For them, external things like accomplishments, position, diplomas, fortune and career are symbols of success. They compare themselves to others all the time and are not satisfied with what they’ve got. There is always someone who owns even more or has done more. Typically, they have a gnawing feeling that they haven’t contributed enough, they don’t have enough money yet, or they don’t have a good enough position yet. They’re perfectionists who can’t be satisfied with what they’ve achieved.

Anni felt that when she was at work, she was needed and was somebody; she never sat with her hands folded. When some of her projects were successfully completed, life suddenly seemed empty and pointless to Anni. She went home and opened a bottle of wine. It was the only thing that helped her relax. Stopping amounted to not existing. She never indulged herself by enjoying the fruits of her work or resting for a longer period. She was always quick to find a replacement activity because her identity was connected to work. Work was her best friend, her god and her boss.

The work-god is a tough perfectionist who always expects the maximum from an addict. Tommy Hellsten has said, “Since the false-hero does not exist without heroism and external glory, he must have the opportunity to be first in every field, or else he will be gone. As a result, any criticism is very painful for the false-hero, and he makes great efforts not to experience it. Even some minor mishap makes him feel that not only the act but he himself is wrong.”

As addiction develops, perfectionism becomes an obsession: anything associated with the person must be flawless. Both their own actions and the behaviour and appearance of the people surrounding them must be perfect. They believe that this flawlessness protects them; it’s like a shield to protect the outside world from attacks. But perfection is not a characteristic of humans or nature; it can only be achieved for a short period.

The more successful Anni became, the more she felt that the job was the only thing she could always rely on. It was always at hand when uncomfortable emotions arose. More and more often, Anni wondered why she didn’t have a family or a nice man to have children with. All her female classmates were already married and raising children. But Anni kept moving up the career ladder; she appeared on the front covers of magazines, but she had no personal life. There had been some short-term relationships, but none of them lasted for more than six months. Besides, these men were either addicts or mummy’s boys. Work had become a faithful and confident partner for Anni, which offered relief for her internal lack of satisfaction.

The workaholic will not tolerate it when loved ones start demanding their attention. They don’t understand why family members are whining all the time. These addicts sincerely believe that they’re working very hard 24 hours a day only for the sake of the family. They think they know that others expect so much self-sacrifice from them. Very often, they find close relationships annoying and suffocating rather than anything else. They are bored by people who want to talk about emotions, needs, and what’s bothering them. Instead, they have a lot of superficial relationships where you can joke, talk about work or travel to distant lands. In these relationships, they can preserve the image of a successful person, and they won’t let anyone see their inner world.

Workaholics have no time or energy for close relationships. As their addiction progresses, they increasingly lose touch with themselves and their surroundings. If they happen to have a family, then typically there are broken promises for the family, lonely weekends, and a parent staring into a screen. Instead of close relationships, a workaholic develops secondary dependencies that don’t annoy, demand or need anything from them. These are activities that are always at hand, like the internet, sex, sport, alcohol, food, and sweets.

Anni was very busy all the time. She was often a little late, but she always had the excuse that “there’s a lot of work”. She couldn’t manage her time or her energy resources. When Anni met some acquaintances, and they asked how things were, the answer was always the same: “Busy. There’s been a lot of work lately.” The “lately”, however, had been going on for many years already. When relatives and friends met on family birthdays, Anni always had to leave early because her god – her work – was waiting.

Some workaholics are dramatic complainers and moaners. The first chance they get, they talk at length and in detail about their work and activities, and at the end, they sigh, “I can’t do it anymore, honestly”. Deep down, they believe that if they work hard without protecting their health, other people will respect them more.

Anni was the oldest child in the family and learned from an early age that attention had to be earned. The mother worked as a kindergarten teacher, and the father was a vet at the collective farm; they were focused on family maintenance and work duties. Anni was an independent and talented girl, the kind of girl who didn’t need to be taught or helped much. Her parents had no problems with her. In kindergarten, her drawings were the best; in school, her grades were the highest. Anni remembers how natural it was for her that she also looked after her two younger brothers, gave them food and cleaned the floors before going to school. Her parents bragged about Anni to their colleagues, though very quickly, Anni’s diligence became so common that it was no longer considered worthy of mention. Anni realised she had to work harder to get attention and praise.

This is the childhood of a workaholic. A child like that often grows up in a family where there is no existence outside of constant work and where you don’t learn to value yourself. It is often the case that the “black sheep” of a family that has been deprived of positive attention will, as an adult, seek approval through achievements. This child develops into a “hero of labour” who does not hesitate to work overtime and never stops working. But despite their achievements, they don’t experience satisfaction, or a sense that they have enough.

The years passed, and one day Anni realised she was already 40 years old and had no children or partner. Her one committed relationship was with her work. The years had gone by as she worked for the sake of her career, and eventually, serious health problems arose. Recently Anni was diagnosed with a severe illness that forced her to stay at home; she fell into depression because her life had suddenly lost its meaning.

Workaholics don’t know who they really are. They have a weak contact with their inner world. They live in a constant fantasy that if they get far enough in their careers, they can finally rest and enjoy economic independence. They imagine that only then can they be satisfied with themselves because they have achieved enough. They live in the future; their whole life is predicated on waiting for a more opportune time. Unfortunately, they never achieve it, as all their own choices take them further away from their goal.

Healing. Workaholism is a serious addiction, and awareness of it is the first step toward healing. Workaholics are most notable for being in a constant rush, lacking free time, as their schedule is fully booked up, and having an ultra-high need for achievement. The path to healing begins with acknowledging the consequences of dependency on work and the decision to change your life. An addict needs to create new positive habits and hobbies that do not have a visible result, such as meditation, hiking or reading. The lack of visible results helps one let go of the need to achieve.

In order to heal, it is necessary to learn to slow down the rhythm of life. When slowed down, addicts usually develop severe internal anxiety. The causes of anxiety are worth addressing in therapy or self-development groups, where the focus is on working with emotions and changing negative beliefs. Yoga and physical training, as well as alternative means such as liberating breathing, Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), Shindo, and tai chi, also help to relieve anxiety. Unfortunately, falling off the wagon is a natural part of the recovery process when healing from this addiction. Therefore, always remember that it is not the one who falls who is weak, but the one who does not stand up.


  1. How often do your work habits cause problems in your private life?
  2. How many hours a week do you spend on work, and how much time do you spend with your family, loved ones, or friends?
  3. Do you have trouble setting time limits on work and ending the working day at the right time?
  4. Do you have difficulty enjoying the results of your work even if you are well paid and respected and admired by your colleagues in your sphere of work?
  5. How often do you change agreements and promises to yourself, family members, or friends because of work?
  6. Are you having trouble delegating your job and putting your job aside for a while?
  7. Do you take time to rest? How are your work habits affecting holiday periods and leisure time?
  8. How easy is it for you to stay away from your computer, phone, and everything else that relates to your work on your holidays? Do you have smart-device-free days?
  9. How much do you let yourself be interfered with job-related phone calls, thoughts and activities when you’re resting or spending time with your loved ones?
  10. How much does your health suffer due to your intense working schedule? Do you get regular medical checkups? Are you following doctors’ advice and recommendations?
  11. Do your loved ones have to walk on tiptoe to avoid disturbing you? Has it happened often lately that you get upset or lose your temper?
  12. Have you tried, without success, to reduce or end overwork, over-responsibility and over-commitment to work?
  13. How often do you make promises to spend more time at home, or relax with friends, and discover that you aren’t able to do it?


First stage – In the initial stage, the person is constantly busy and takes on responsibilities and work. He works overtime, even if not paid for it. No holidays – they’ll never find time for that.

Second stage – Workaholics distance themselves from personal relationships, their partners, their children, their friends. At home, they are emotionally still involved with work or just restless. The physical signs begin to appear – addicts are always tired; they have sleeping disorders; they lose or gain weight.

Last stage – Their personal life is gone, they have no hobbies, they haven’t been on holiday for years, their friends have disappeared, and they feel lonely. Work no longer offers satisfaction or pleasure. Severe physical symptoms appear: headaches, high blood pressure, digestive problems, heart problems, a stroke, a heart attack, etc.

Sources: https://www.foundationsrecoverynetwork.com/signs-and-symptoms-of-work-addiction /

Tommy Hellsten, The Hippo in the Workplace, published by Väike Vanker

This article appeared in the magazine Eesti Naine, March 2019

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