What Is Workaholism?

By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D.
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs

Since this is my first blog for
Focus@Will, allow me to introduce myself. I’m the Science Director here, the Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University. And, as you might have suspected from that ridiculously long list of titles, I’m a workaholic. Well, a recovering one.

alivenessEdward Oates wrote in his book Confessions of a Workaholic that workaholism is characterized by the “compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” But it is helpful to distinguish workaholism from work engagement. Workaholism and work engagement are both related to absorption with work, but work engagement is associated with fun and joy (Plester, Cooper-Thomas, & Winquist, 2015), while workaholism is about being driven compulsively to work (Schaufeli, Taris & van Rhenen, 2008).

Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve spent years fooling yourself into thinking that your life-deadening addiction to work was in fact the live-enlivening virtue of work engagement. Perhaps, like me, you’ve experienced your child telling you how guilty they feel when they’re not doing work. And perhaps you thought, “Huh. That seems pretty bad. Everyone should relax now and then, and not feel guilty about it.” And then you wondered, “did my kid get that from me?” Well, yes. Probably.

Are you a work addict? You can find out now, with disappointingly little work. Use the work addiction scale, described here. And here’s a work engagement test — p. 89-90 of this document. Worth noting – there is some overlap between work addiction and work engagement, but even if you get a high score on work engagement, if you are a work addict as well, it’s not good for you or the people around you.

If you just found out you are a work addict, join the club. America has been ranked as the fifth most workaholic country based on vacation days not taken; Japan was ranked first. Speaking of Japan, a recent study of 1,196 Japanese workers showed that workers who were high in self-reported work engagement improved their health and life satisfaction over the course of two years, while those high in self-reported workaholism reduced their health and life satisfaction over the course of the same two years (Shimazu, Schaufeli, Kamiyama, & Kawakami, 2015). No surprise, but this result underscores my point – work engagement is what you want to go for, not work addiction.

How to make the shift? I’ll tell you my own, unscientific observations, first-hand. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of you finding out from more than one workaholic what they have experienced.

So I’ve spent more than a year in a 12-step group, and I can tell you that there’s something that recovering addicts know that addicts who haven’t faced their addiction don’t. Nope, it’s not the neuroscience story about how addiction hijacks what should be a healthy reward system (if you don’t know how that works, you can learn the basics here.

This secret information is very personal, so personal that only you know what it is, and yet it seems to be true for every addict I’ve met (a far from scientific survey). There are probably many reasons that you are in the throes of the addiction, but a big one is likely this: You have feelings you don’t want to feel. I have no idea what these feelings are, but they are there, and you don’t want to feel them.

According to one of the most well-cited psychological studies on work addiction, the afflicted “neglect their life outside their job. Typically, they work so hard out of an inner compulsion, need, or drive, and not because of external factors….” (Schaufeli, Taris & van Rhenen, 2008, p.175).

Where does that inner compulsion come from? Ask a recovering addict more than a few months along in the recovery process, and you will find out: It’s a fear of feeling. Addiction deadens us, and we need the deadening desperately, or else we feel.

But there is an antidote. The antidote for addiction is recovery, and to me that means among other things, practicing aliveness. Practicing feeling everything that’s there, including the feelings you don’t want to feel.

By the way, aliveness – true authentic aliveness – has nothing to do with feeling joyful all the time. In fact, forcing yourself to feel joyful all the time is another type of deadening, if joyful-all-the-time is not how you feel (and it’s not, for anyone). Unfortunately, practicing aliveness does not initially lead to feeling compassionate for your neighbor or being willing to participate at work or reveling in delight – although it will eventually lead to all three. But at first, aliveness sucks. At the beginning, it’s just horrible.

Feeling alive literally means giving yourself permission to be yourself, be present, and feel all your feelings. And if you haven’t been feeling those feelings for years, you’ve got some catching up to do. Those feelings don’t go away, they stick around and wait. So kind of them to do that! Generally we don’t avoid feelings that are positive, so when you’re dealing with stored-up, un-felt feelings, you’ve got some crappy days ahead. Sorry, but the antidote is to practice aliveness anyway.

Why? What’s the point of practicing aliveness if you end up feeling miserable?

Well, two things. First, you don’t end up being miserable. After a short time practicing being alive – and it really is much briefer a time than you might fear – you will start to feel better. Not just “better,” but really better than you have ever felt since you started ignoring your feelings. REALLY better. Like, actually great. That’s the stunning benefit of being in recovery from any addiction, including workaholism.

Oh, and the second thing is, at some point you can’t help but feel alive. If you’re a work addict, at some point your workaholism will get so bad that you realize even the pain of feeling your feelings isn’t worth the physical, emotional, and social pain you’re already feeling. Squashing your aliveness to remain dead to your feelings will cause enough negative feelings that it turns out that it’s worse to squash them, and aliveness is the only alternative. Your aliveness will be thrust on you, and it will hurt. It will hurt so good, in fact, that it will feel a whole lot better than deadening yourself.

It doesn’t happen all at once, of course, and in order to stay sane you need to be with other people who know what’s going on. You need to learn from them to feel yourself. It’s weird but true. So seek out your fellow work addicts, and trust me, they’re within feet of your desk.

The lowdown: If the diagnosis is workaholism, the treatment is aliveness. Welcome to yours.

Note: This blog post was written under the focusing and engaging influence of Focus Spa, one of the many channels scientifically designed to increase focus at Focus@Will.


About Julia Mossbridge:

In addition to being a recovering workaholic, I am a parent of a 16-year old composer, a partner to a wonderful being, and a person who now actually has a relationship with myself and the people around me. I give talks about work engagement and aliveness. My upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.



Workaholics Anonymous — — find a meeting or start a new meeting at your workplace (hint: you’re probably not the only work addict there).


Oates, W. E (1971), Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction. New York, World.

Plester, B., Cooper-Thomas, H., & Winquist, J. (2015). The fun paradox. Employee Relations, 37(3), 380-398.

Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., & Van Rhenen, W. (2008). Workaholism, burnout, and work engagement: three of a kind or three different kinds of employee well‐being?. Applied Psychology, 57(2), 173-203.

Shimazu, A., Schaufeli, W. B., Kamiyama, K., & Kawakami, N. (2015). Workaholism vs. work engagement: the two different predictors of future well-being and performance. International journal of behavioral medicine, 22(1), 18-23.

There is some linking of the concepts of engagement and fun in the suggestion that for engaged employees actual work becomes fun (Schaufeli , Tarris & Bakker in Bakker, 2010) and Gorgievski.


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