My Work Addiction Was Once a Source of Pride. Then It Nearly Killed Me.

I was part of the mass burnout affecting an entire working generation

Illustration: Malte Mueller/Getty

Reader note: This article contains discussion of self-harm and suicidal ideation. See the end of the article for helpful resources.

My name is Dani Alexis, and I’m a workaholic.

Were I confessing to a drug or alcohol addiction, this admission would elicit concern. It might even be mildly shocking. Certainly it would be seen as a problem to be corrected, and I would be praised for my efforts to break free of my unhealthy relationship with my drug of choice.

Because my drug of choice is work, however, I usually get the opposite reaction. I’ve been praised for my “work ethic.” I’ve heard people express envy: “I wish I was as committed to my work as you are!” I’ve been encouraged to put my work addiction front and center on my résumé (although perhaps not quite in those terms) and to bring it up as a “strength” during interviews. And to this day, I’m asked to advise others on how to be more “committed” like me.

Imagine asking an alcoholic how you can be more “committed” to drinking.

Despite its etymological relationship to “alcoholic,” the word “workaholic” has almost pride-inducing connotations. An absurdly large number of us are proud to be workaholics. We put it on our résumés. We encourage it in our children. We cite it as the source of our success. I certainly did.

And we do not see, or we refuse to see, the connection between this behavior and the mass burnout of an entire working generation.

This is why, when talking about my own struggles with overwork, I generally prefer the term “work addiction” to “workaholism.” I don’t want anyone thinking that my lifelong battle is in any way commendable or worth emulating.

Because it has nearly killed me. Twice.

Workaholism: It’s not a party

The first time work addiction nearly killed me was in my late twenties. At the time, I was trying to hold down a grueling law firm job with absolutely zero support in any area of my life.

It may even be fair to say I had negative support. The two people who were nominally “on my side” were incredibly high-maintenance emotional relationships — in some ways, they were even more work than the “pressure cooker” of the law firm (the manager’s words, not mine). When the bottom finally did fall out of my life, the two people closest to me feared only that I would no longer be there for them.

In July 2009, I stopped sleeping. I didn’t intend to stop sleeping; my brain just stopped turning off. But I embraced it. I remember feeling a sort of elation: Finally, I am transcending the need for sleep. Finally, I can get some work done.

I lacked the self-control to not work myself to death when I had an office, defined work hours, and obligations outside work. Stuck in bed with no job, no friends, and a laptop, there was nothing to stop me.

If you’ve never experienced an extended period of not sleeping at all, let me say: It is a cursed carnival of misery. After about four days, I started hallucinating. I was hospitalized around day seven.

Between July and September 2009, I had three hospital stays for the insomnia and a host of related issues, including but not limited to suicidal ideation. I spent the next year unable to leave my bed for more than a few hours a week. I lost count of the number of doctors who said to me, “You must quit working so hard or you will die.”

I followed the doctors’ advice to quit the law firm job. I did not, however, follow their advice to stop working “so hard.” From my laptop in my bed in my parents’ basement, I discovered a new high. I discovered freelancing.

Freelancing: Work addiction premium

The big problem with freelancing is that the ability to work anywhere at any time quickly turns into the notion that one should be working everywhere all the time.

Since the pandemic began, millions of workers are discovering the ease with which “work anytime” becomes “work all the time.” Articles like this piece in the Harvard Business Review, or this piece I wrote when the pandemic began, provide advice on how to “avoid WFH burnout” resulting from overwork.

If you already have an obsession with working all the time, however, no article in the world is going to stop you.

I lacked the self-control to not work myself to death when I had an office, defined work hours, and obligations outside work. Stuck in bed with no job, no friends, and a laptop, there was nothing to stop me.

In late 2010, my psychologist said, “I think you’re about ready to go back to work.” I (in hindsight, foolishly) did not tell him that I had been working seven days a week for six months already.

“How would you describe your problem?” the doctors asked me. “My problem is that I have four jobs and I need to only have three jobs,” I said.

One would think that the gradual improvements in my health due to all that forced bed rest would have taught me something about the value of rest. One would, however, be overlooking the power of an addiction.

By 2012, I was able to move around and take care of myself again. I got married in August of that year, and my new spouse and I moved into our own apartment. Working became an even deeper obsession for me, fueled by the need to support our little household entirely on my freelance income.

When my spouse found a job, it eased the financial burden on my shoulders. But of course I didn’t stop working.

Instead, I went to graduate school. I took a 20-hour-a-week teaching assistantship in addition to being a full-time grad student. I started a winter guard program at a school that was an hour’s drive from my house. I co-founded a small press. I continued trying to hold together one of the two relationships that hospitalized me back in 2009. And I kept freelancing — sometimes as much as 30 hours a week.

By November 2015, at age 33, I was in the hospital again.

“How would you describe your problem?” the doctors asked me.

“My problem is that I have four jobs and I need to only have three jobs,” I said.

The look the doctors gave one another should not have been my first clue that I had a problem. But it was.

WTF happened?

Billions of people work every day, but not everyone develops an addiction. So what happened to me?

There aren’t good worldwide numbers for work addiction, but its prevalence appears to range near 10% of the working population in most Western nations. One study from Spain found that about 12% of the population met the criteria for work addiction. About half of Americans consider themselves “workaholics.”

Not all “workaholics” are necessarily work-addicted. Mark Griffiths, a psychologist and professor of gambling studies at the Nottingham Trent University, has argued that a behavior shouldn’t be characterized as an addiction until it meets six specific criteria:

  • Salience: It’s the most important thing in your life.
  • Mood modification: It produces a “buzz” or a “high” or allays negative feelings like anxiety.
  • Tolerance: You need to do more and more of the thing to get the same mood-modifying effects.
  • Withdrawal: Not doing the thing produces severe negative symptoms.
  • Conflict: Doing the thing causes problems with personal relationships, gets in the way of other beneficial life activities, or causes intrapersonal concerns.
  • Relapse: Left to your own devices, there’s a substantial chance you will do the thing again.

I’ve been six for six basically since I started middle school. Work is everything to me: Check. Work is how I feel better and avoid negative feelings (including, in my case, PTSD flashbacks): Check. I increased my workload over time to maintain those mood effects: Check. Not working sends me up the wall: Check. I’ve lost friendships, gotten into arguments, skipped food and sleep, and avoided dealing with my trauma for years through work: Check. Left to my own devices, I’d do it all again: Check.

We tend to define a “workaholic” as someone who simply spends a lot of their time at work. I would define “work addiction” as the experience of being unable to stop working — even when we can see that it’s killing us.

Work addiction occurs when work-centric behavior becomes compulsive. Work begins to feel necessary for survival—not in the “I need money to eat” way, but in the “if I’m not focused on this project, then the tigers will eat me and I will cease to exist forever” way.

I stopped working at the law firm in 2009 because I couldn’t do the job anymore, not because I decided, “Hey, I’m going to stop working.” When I arrived at the hospital in 2015, I knew I needed to quit one of my four jobs. I just couldn’t decide which one.

I don’t mean “couldn’t” as in “I felt indecisive.” I mean “couldn’t” as in “I was incapable.” It wasn’t that I could name pros and cons to keeping or quitting any of the four. It was that even thinking about thinking about which to quit caused me so much agony that I simply shut down.

“I should think about quitting one of these jobs,” I’d say to myself.

BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH, my brain would reply.

Work addiction occurs when work-centric behavior becomes compulsive. Work begins to feel necessary for survival—not in the “I need money to eat” way, but in the “if I’m not focused on this project, then the tigers will eat me and I will cease to exist forever” way.

Often, work addiction is driven by an underlying issue (or several) that work becomes a means to avoid. It’s more common, for example, in people who are carrying unresolved trauma, especially trauma stemming from childhood or intimate partner abuse. Work addiction can also be the manifestation of a condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, depression, or anxiety.

In my case, work is a way to avoid dealing with a lifetime of abuse, with chronic pain, and with several other things I just plain don’t want to look at. If given the chance, I will literally work myself to death rather than face those demons.

I tried. Twice. Before age 33.

Good job not dying?

Lol, thanks.

Work addiction differs from certain other types of addictions, like alcohol or gambling, because we typically need to work in order to survive. Humans can thrive without ever taking a sip of booze or placing a bet, but we don’t do as well without working.

I don’t mean “work” as in “exchanging labor for survival,” although in any capitalist society, most people do exchange their labor for survival. “Work” as in “meaningful pursuits” transcends survival needs; left to their own devices, humans will find something meaningful to do. Work is a common, typical, necessary and even healthy human behavior—usually.

The challenge for work addicts, then, isn’t to go “cold turkey” from work. Rather, it is to redefine our relationship with work — to place work in a context that is closer to the healthy pursuit of our human need for autonomy, dignity, and meaning.

Here’s what that looked like for me.

Setting boundaries around work time

“Work time” is now 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., four days a week. (The morning time slot on Wednesdays is housecleaning time.) I give myself 20 hours a week to get all my paying work done. That’s it.

As a freelancer, I have quite a bit of freedom to set my own work hours. Limiting myself to 20 hours a week or less, however, required me to radically rethink the types of projects and clients I accepted. I can’t work for a penny per word if I can only work for 20 hours a week, for example.

Having to limit my work time forced me to reconceptualize my work content, which in turn changed my approach to work. It’s now a puzzle I get to solve only at certain times of the week. It has recharged the joy I once found in working and sharply reduced the tolerance load.

Therapy and self-awareness

I had started therapy about two years before the second hospitalization in 2015. During and after that hospital stay, however, I renewed my commitment to dealing with my terror of not working and the inner demons that fueled that terror.

My reasons are complex and long-lasting. They were baked in during my formative years, so I don’t have a “before” to serve as a benchmark. But digging through them has made work and not-work easier, and it has helped reduce my risk of relapse over time.

I do lapse. I haven’t wound up all the way back in the work-addiction hole, but I do catch myself perseverating over tasks from time to time. My 2018 KonMari adventure, for example, was enormously productive for both the organization of my household and my psyche.

Yet there were phases that started to feel very much like my work addiction. When KonMari’ing my home began to feel like work, I had to step away. As a result, I ended up finishing the process over months (and I never did write the final blog post in the series).

Doing nothing

During the second hospitalization, much of my work with my psychologist centered around “doing nothing.” We talked about the life-threatening terror that phrase struck in me. We talked about my absolute aversion to the concept and my intense self-loathing at imagining myself doing nothing.

And then I got ordered to do it.

I made a list of activities that, in my mind, constituted the dreaded “doing nothing.” They were amazingly innocuous.

Reading novels. Taking a walk for the sake of walking (not to run an errand). Composing music just to do it. Building a dollhouse. Shooting hoops.

They were, in essence, the kinds of things that other people look at and say, “If that’s your definition of doing nothing, then I’m the laziest slug on the planet!”

You’re not, of course. It’s that my sense of what counted as “things I have a right to consume oxygen in order to do” is utterly inside out.

The psychologist challenged me further: Schedule two hours a day to “do nothing.” Those two hours had to be at a time I’d normally be awake, and they had to be spent doing something on my list of activities that constituted “doing nothing.”

At first, I fudged this more than a little. I spent that time reading manuscripts for the press (hey, it’s fiction, right?) or told myself that going for a walk would also count as my exercise time, so it was therefore “productive.” Lately, I’ve been playing video games with an eye to repurposing my adventures as content.

Generally speaking, however, I’ve done a fairly good job of making those two hours into “nothing time” or at least into “taskless time.” I may be doing something, but there’s no pressure to do anything in particular or to finish any project or task. No one will judge me; no one will see the results.

Doing nothing has gotten easier since I started. It’s still not easy; it probably never will be. But I appreciate it more now that I see the profound effect it’s had on the quality of my work at other times of the day.

I don’t mean to suggest that doing nothing is a cure for work addiction. It’s not. I’m not sure there is such a thing. Managing my work addiction since 2015 has meant constant awareness of my own behavior, strict adherence to schedules, regular therapy sessions, and holding myself accountable for lapses while refusing to recriminate myself for them. I’m not sure this work ever ends. But at least it’s no longer killing me.

If you are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please do not hesitate to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources. For more information, call or visit SuicidePreventionHotline.org.

As seen in The Atlantic that one time. Freelance writer, sci-fi author, pageantry arts nerd. Tweets @danialexis. See also http://danialexis.net

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