4 Types of workaholic: Do you recognize these traits?

Author: Phil Eyre

The term 'workaholic' was coined by American psychologist Wayne Oates who was, by his own observation, one himself. He authored some 57 books in his lifetime, a reflection of his commitment to production and industry. In his  analysis, the person addicted to work "drops out of human community" as they seek to optimise performance . 

Yet there remains no single accepted medical definition of what constitutes a workaholic. Someone who is highly engaged and dedicated (positive attributes) could be considered by others as a workaholic. At the same time, someone else who works fewer hours could be suffering destructive tendencies.

What differentiates the dedicated, engaged worker from the workaholic? There are some indications. Working hard (compulsively) but with little enjoyment is one suggestion that positive engagement has become a destructive addiction. Like substance-addicts, workaholics can experience a short time high, followed by longer term regret (see previous post "The Secret to Integrating Life and Work”).

In our work with various organizations, we have observed four differentiating factors - four types of workaholic;

1. The defeatist. Always 'too busy' to enjoy a sunset walk or make that dinner date, the truth is that the defeatist doesn't believe that pleasure is worth it - more often than not, that they're not worth it. Other people's needs are more important as they work late and miss the children's school play, or give up lunch because a colleague forgot theirs.  'Too busy' to study for qualifications, rushing through work, turning down a pay rise to maintain favor with the bosses but quietly, often feeling unworthy. There's always someone else who deserves it more. Opportunities for pleasure, success and to achieve goals can be available, but the defeatist mentality - providing the short-term reward that frugality, lack and less is 'good' - leaves the defeatist short-changed. The immediate "thank you" from others provides the short term rush, but it doesn't last long. 

2. The Saboteur. Distracted and obsessed by work, the saboteur becomes careless. Looking for things and relationships takes up time that could otherwise be used to 'work'.   Spreadsheets get deleted before being saved; keys, phones, the company laptop are left in airport security, taxis, and hotels. Messages are regularly unreturned, bills paid late (incurring more charges), sleep can become elusive. Busyness is used to excuse a chaotic diary or poor eating habits. The Saboteur says things out loud that others wince at; even (and especially) to people that they care about. "I'm just being honest", they say. Thoughtless comments jeopardize good relationships.  The 'Rush' is in getting what's wanted in the immediate moment and fast, at the cost of investment in tomorrow's health and long-term relationships.

3. The Self-Punisher. Taking the "no pain, no gain" mentality to excess, the Self-Punisher pulls all-nighters to get projects completed as the 'only way' to get the work done. They position themselves in ever increasingly risky situations that they know will result in pain (physical) or stress (mental) - but "that's what they have to do to succeed, right?" Repeating painful and stressful experiences, the self-punisher rushes for the next apparently fearless action, ignoring wise counsel, getting into pain and trouble, yet expecting this to provide greater rewards for the risks taken. Some start to believe that they have a near super-human ability to cope with pain and stress, denying the reality that their body is suffering and stress is taking it's toll. 

4. The Martyr. Sucks up pain and stress and 'saves' everyone else from their struggles. The immediate 'thanks' wears off quickly, though, as the martyr constantly needs to be needed. Assuming that pain and stress are a normal part of life, the martyr refuses to go to the doctor and turns down offers of help as if somehow any relief of their struggle would make them a lesser person. Before long, the martyr becomes (in their mind, at least) indispensable. "I must go to work today despite the pain", they say, "because they just can't do without me.". Martyrs hardly delegate; no-one else can do the work up to standard. With a sense of futility and hopelessness, they talk about their struggles and need for resources (better people, bigger budget) but more to invite pity than to actually reduce their stress. 

The truth is that we all need some of these traits in small measure in order to live and work with other people. It is when these traits become habits that they become destructive. 

The good news is that it is possible to identify these factors with precision, the basis of transformation.  Using science, we can measure our productive and counterproductive skills. We use scientific assessments including the Quality of Motivation Questionnaire, to help our clients assess - with data - where their blind spots lie. (see QMQ).  Addressing and changing our habits begins most effectively when we have this insight, rather than simply guessing. Then, working though a plan step by step, we help to eliminate destructive tendencies.

I was 'the martyr', with a score over 3 times 'normal'. I thought that my actions were honourable, when in fact I was simply permitting poor behaviour and getting high on the associated stress. I'm grateful that the process we use has helped me to reorder my thinking. My score has normalised. I'm certainly happier, healthier and a better leader as a result.

Do you identify with any of these 4 traits? What action can you take to change your thinking?