Justin’s wife checked his suitcase before they left on a much needed two-week vacation— but she wasn’t looking to see whether he’d packed enough clothes. Justin was addicted to his job, and she was searching for the work papers that he often brought on these trips. She never found the stack of his company’s financial statements hidden in a pair of jeans.
Megan’s new business venture was a booming success. Sure, it took all of her free time to get things rolling. After five years of putting in 60 to 80 hours a week, she struck gold, and now she can’t slow down. She even keeps her smartphone by her bedside so she can answer contacts in the middle of the night! Megan promised herself a vacation a couple of years ago. It’s never happened. Her friends try to warn her that someday she’ll crash and burn.
Workaholism is one of the most difficult addictions for people to admit to. People who are obsessed with their work to the point that it damages their relationships and health are often in denial. Our society mostly affirms workaholics. Companies often reward employees who overwork. The boss stands up at the annual Christmas party and brags about those employees who put in 60 to 80 hours a week. Work addiction can happen to anyone, paid or unpaid, who takes on too many responsibilities. And the results can be deadly.
What is a workaholic?
A workaholic is someone who’s addicted to work. There’s a difference between being a hard worker and being addicted to your job. Putting in some extra time to complete a project now and then is not the same as being chronically focused on work. Hard workers think about being at home with their families while staying late to finish a job. Work addicts constantly think about their employment while being at home or with friends.
Sometimes people will say they are workaholics to communicate how much they love their jobs. But people who are truly addicted to overwork cross a line that’s damaging to their health and relationships. They’re usually sleep deprived and don’t exercise. They have children who hardly ever see them because they leave for work early and come home late. Or they’re often on out-of-town business trips.
The Addiction Help Center defines work addiction as a process addiction.1 “A process addiction,” they explain, “is an addiction to certain behaviors or processes that alter mood and brain chemistry.” People who are addicted ignore the negative consequences of their activities. “It becomes a problem when there’s no balance and boundaries are weak.”
Mobile technology has increased the blur between our jobs and personal time. It’s made unplugging from work even more difficult for workaholics. The temptation to respond to bosses or clients who “need you” often leaves spouses, children, or friends pushed aside. Telling your kids, “I’m doing this for you,” just doesn’t cut it.
In some countries of the world, work addiction is a cultural phenomenon. Many East Asian nations report high suicide rates among exhausted laborers who are extremely devoted to their jobs. The Japanese have even coined a word for work addiction—karõshi, which literally means “death from overwork.”
In her article “Working to Death in China,” Charmika Monet writes in the Diplomat that an estimated “600,000 people die from work-related stress and its effects every year in China.” It has become the nation with the highest incidence of death from overwork. Research shows that manual laborers who work long hours are much less likely to die from strenuous work. The deadly pressure is almost completely among those with jobs that require mostly mental activity.
The payoff to putting in overtime has its limits. It isn’t as simple as working more and getting paid more. Studies have revealed that productivity begins to decline after a 50-hour workweek. Health risks climb, and work relationships begin to break down. Even people who make more money have less time for leisure and relaxation.
Am I a workaholic?
Like many addictions, it’s difficult for workaholics to see their damaging dependency on work in order to feel good. It’s hard to admit your problem when clients send thank-you notes and employers pat you on the back, even though your personal life is falling apart. An inferiority complex can compel some to search for value in their work or from employers at the expense of healthy living. Workaholics can even become addicted to the adrenaline rush of putting in crazy hours or trying to meet unrealistic deadlines.
Barbara Killinger, a Toronto clinical psychologist who wrote Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts, divides work addicts into three groups: controllers, pleasers, and narcissistic controllers. The first group thinks that everything has to be done their way. The second group wants to make everyone else happy. The third group is especially damaging. Narcissistic controllers essentially shut off feelings over how their work habits negatively affect others.
Listening to your loved ones or your doctor can help you recognize the symptoms of overwork. Being in tune with your body can also reveal that your stress-related illnesses come with work addiction. Do you always feel tense, tired, or worn down? Workaholics often die from heart attacks or strokes. Chronic depression is prevalent among work addicts.
God’s solution to work addiction
God knew that human beings need time for rest, and He created a way for them to find it. Built into the heart of the Ten Commandments, the fourth one is an antidote to the frenzied lives of people who find it difficult to stop. It’s called the Sabbath.
The answer to workaholism isn’t to completely stop working but to live with balance. It’s learning when to work and when not to work. God’s gift of the Sabbath is especially beneficial to those who are addicted to work.
The Bible tells us that God spent six days creating our world, and then He rested. “On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2, 3, NKJV).2
Why would an all-powerful God need to stop working? His rest wasn’t for physical refreshment. It was an opportunity to connect with His creation. God has left us an example, yet many people live as if their work is more important than the Creator’s. Perhaps the One who made us knows what’s best for us.
The Sabbath is more than good advice. The fourth commandment specifically addresses the issue of work. Notice, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8–10, NKJV; italics added).
Stopping from our regular employment is not only a way to acknowledge God as our Creator; it also reminds us that we are the created. The Sabbath tells us we are not God. It sets our priorities straight. It establishes healthy boundaries that keep work and worship in balance. Since we’re inclined to forget, the Sabbath commandment begins with the word Remember.
Keeping the Sabbath acknowledges that a Higher Power determines our lives and gives us value. Our significance isn’t found in our work. Our security isn’t based on our income. We exist because we are created. We stop our work to remember that we are loved.
Diane Fassel, author of Working Ourselves to Death, points out that if workaholics won the lottery, they would still be addicted to work, because the driving force behind the addiction isn’t money. It’s the enormous anxiety and unresolved psychological issues. She says, “The underlying belief is that if I weren’t continually active, I’d have no right to exist. Like alcoholism, it’s a disease of the soul, a spiritual disease.”
God’s cure for workaholism isn’t a new app for our electronic devices. It’s the Sabbath. Stopping our regular work every seventh day interrupts our obsession to focus on what we can accomplish and lets us remember what God has accomplished. Sabbath helps us admit that without God, our lives are out of control. We can’t live sanely unless we connect to a Higher Power—a loving Creator who has a longing desire for our companionship and our worship.
Shawn was a true workaholic. He was making good money, but his wife was ready to leave him. His boss loved him, but his kids hardly knew their daddy. He felt chronically depressed and threw himself even harder into his job in order to cover the emotional pain and empty feeling that nagged him constantly.
Then, a most wonderful event took place in his life. Shawn lost his job. At first, he was even more depressed, but it was a turning point. It gave him time to reflect on his priorities. When his wife suggested that they attend a series of meetings about the Bible, he was ready to go. He knew he needed help.
During the course of the Bible seminar, the presenter introduced the importance of the Sabbath. Shawn had heard of the Sabbath and assumed it was simply something for Jews. But then he read a statement made by Jesus that caused him to think again about the seventh day. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
By honoring God through keeping the Sabbath, Shawn not only put God in charge of his life, he discovered that the Sabbath isn’t just a cold commandment to keep. It’s a day for joy and refreshment. It was a gift that stopped him and reminded him that his value as a person was not in how much money he made. Sabbath taught him that his significance was based on a loving Creator who wanted his heart.
Workaholism, like other addictions, is a coping strategy that doesn’t work. It promises relief from underlying emotional issues, but it doesn’t deliver. God’s plan for a healthy, balanced life includes the Sabbath. It’s the perfect solution for work addicts. And it delivers!