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The New Typology of Workaholics Part I: Introduction
A New Typology
Previous categories of workaholics have presented classifications of work styles, usually with one category of workaholics and various other categories of nonworkaholics. The dyed-in-the-wool workaholic, for example, is the only true workaholic classification among Oates's (1971) five categories, and the workaholic and the enthusiastic workaholic are the only two classifications of workaholics presented by Spence and Robbins (1992), contrasted with four other types of nonworkaholics. Because the work styles of workaholics vary, this article distinguishes workaholics by their degree of work initiation and work completion. This typology is based on many years of anecdotal clinical observations of workaholic clients and their relationships with families.
People tend to think of workaholics as consistently immersed in their work from sunup to sundown, for months on end. But workaholism manifests itself through many work styles, patterns, and types--from constant working to complete lethargy. Some workaholics work incessantly, whereas others binge and purge or even procrastinate. Figure 1 shows a typology of workaholics that is based on level of work initiation and work completion: relentless workaholics, bulimic workaholics, attention deficit workaholics, and savoring workaholics.
Relentless workaholics are stereotyped workaholics--those who work compulsively and constantly, day and night, holidays and weekends. They are relentless in meeting deadlines, often weeks ahead of schedule. Approaching a 6-month deadline as if it were tomorrow gives the relentless workaholic an adrenaline charge, and they will let nothing and no one stand in their way of getting the job done. Having the project out of the way early leaves time to focus on other work items. Mark, a relentless workaholic, describes the absence of let-up, periods of downtime, and leisure and recreation:
"When I am fatigued and have had only three hours of sleep after staying up all night at the computer, something in my body and my mechanism keeps me moving, even when there's no energy left. It isn't easy for me to give up, no matter what the clock says. I take a break to eat and try to work out once in awhile. But I usually don't stop until eleven or twelve o'clock at night. and many times not until two in the morning Because I want to bear down on myself, I tend to put too much on my list, stay up past the time I should have and do projects that really could be done the next day. I want to make sure that I put forth some blood, sweat and tears so that I will remember that I've done the work and I did not come by it in an easy way. I have headaches almost every afternoon to the point that I'm keeping Extra Strength Tylenol in business. I'm tired all the time, but I don't allow the kind of rest I need. I haven't made time for it because there's too much work to be done."
Relentless workaholics think work is more important than relationships, they seem to disregard people's feelings when trying to "get the job done." Susan, for example, was so affirmed in her tireless dedication to the hospital where she worked that it stimulated her to do more, despite her husband's objections. Her addiction got so severe that she actually stepped over dog excrement on the floor for days because she didn't have time to pick it up. Needless to say, her marriage ended in divorce. Susan lamented after the breakup:
"Only after I was separated from my husband did I realize that I wasn't supposed to do all of this as part of my job. I'm aware that I've been addicted to my own adrenaline for a long, long time My mind never stopped at night, because I was running on adrenaline When I couldn't sleep, I'd put a yellow pad by my bed. Every time I had a thought, I'd turn on the light and write the thought down, thinking maybe it would help me sleep. My husband continually wanted to know why I couldn't turn it off because I was working day and night The adrenaline made me feel like I didn't need sleep, except for two or three hours a night. But I wasn't tired. I was having a ball and on a roll!"
Once a task is completed, relentless workaholics move to the next item on the agenda, and they have many activities going at once. They are hard-driving perfectionists, their work is thorough, and their standards are practically unreachable. Relentless workaholics are those whom Oates (1971) referred to as dyed-in-the-wool workaholics, who take their work seriously, meeting nothing short of the highest standards. Overcommitted, this type of workaholic abhors incompetence in others. Relentless workaholics tend to be highly productive and highly regarded by others outside the family.
The second category is the bulimic workaholic who has out-of-control work patterns that vacillate from bingeing to purging. Having procrastinated so that they are faced with a time crunch, bulimic workaholics create adrenaline as they engage in frantic productivity followed by inertia. They overcommit, wait until the last possible minute, throw themselves into a panic, and work frantically to complete the task. Linda worked for 2 or 3 days straight and slept off her work high for 2 days. She collapsed, sleeping in her clothes, just like an alcoholic sleeping off "a drunk":
"When I used to binge, I would take on a project and stay up until three or four in the morning to get it finished, just compulsively thinking that morning's not going to come and that if something happened to me, I have to have it done today. That binge would go into 14 and 16 hours and then I'd have two or three hours of sleep and then go on a roll and do this for two more days. Then I would be exhausted and sleep it off. It's almost like I've heard alcoholics talk about sleeping off a drunk. I would sleep off that binge of work Sometimes I would sleep in my clothes, and I hated it! I just hated it!"
The fact that bulimic workaholics like Linda feel controlled by the rise and fall of their workaholic episodic urges and are unable to maintain an enjoyable, steady work pace makes this workaholic pattern a problem for them. In contrast to relentless workaholics whose productivity is clearly visible, bulimic workaholics go through long periods where they do not work. In fact, you would never know they have a binge problem if you caught them during their down time. When it comes to deadlines, they procrastinate and then put themselves under the gun to finish. Procrastination and frantic working are two different sides of the same coin of work bulimia. Underneath procrastination is the fear of not doing the task perfectly. Bulimic workaholics may become so preoccupied with perfection that they cannot start a project. Yet, while they engage in behaviors that distract them from the task, they obsess about getting the job accomplished. Outwardly, work bulimics seem to be avoiding work, but in their minds, they are working obsessively.
Although physically present during family gatherings or even Workaholics Anonymous meetings, work bulimics are perceived by others as preoccupied because they are working in their heads. During the procrastinating phase, when they feel paralyzed and unable to work steadily and within healthy boundaries, bulimic workaholics are referred to as work anorexics--for whom avoidance of work is as much a compulsion as overworking (Fassel, 1990).
Attention Deficit Workaholics
A third type of workaholic, the attention deficit workaholic, is an adrenaline-seeking workaholic who is easily bored and constantly seeking stimulation. Martin leaves the house most mornings in a huff because either his wife or his kids has done something to upset him. On the way to work he weaves in and out of traffic and shakes his fist and curses at commuters. By the time he gets to the office, he feels settled and ready to work. The appetite for excitement, crisis, and intense stimulation is a strategy that these workaholics unwittingly use to focus themselves. They are often the revved-up workaholics who click their nails on tabletops, twiddle their thumbs, fidget, or pace about erratically. They like risky jobs, recreation, and living on the edge at work and play.
Attention deficit workaholics get a constant adrenaline charge from living on the brink of chaos. Some seek diversion from boredom through stimulation in a relatively safe fashion, such as creating tight work deadlines, keeping many projects going at one time, taking on big challenges at work, and having the chronic inability to relax without intense stimulation. Others live on the edge and engage in high-risk jobs or activities, such as playing the stock market, parachute jumping, or working triage in a hospital emergency room.
Attention deficit workaholics have difficulty keeping their focus on the job before them, get bored with what they are working on, and jump ahead to the next item on the agenda to get another charge of adrenaline. Attention deficit workaholics constantly create crises over the smallest things to get the adrenaline rush. They may throw a fit because there is no paper in the fax machine. It is not uncommon for workaholics to generate the crisis but also get the attention and praise for resolving it. Porter (1996) described this phenomenon in the workplace:
"During a crisis, everyone's attention goes to its resolution. Rarely is time taken to reexamine the history of decision points at which the crisis might have been averted, but the cost of meeting crisis conditions is significant All organization members should be concerned about the possibility that someone in their midst may contribute to or create crises. Indeed, managers focus on praise for those who function well during that time. The same person could be playing both roles, and this person may be a workaholic. (p. 77)"
Many, but not all, attention deficit workaholics are struggling with attention deficit disorder (ADD), which is often undiagnosed. Adrenaline acts as self-medication that functions as an antidote against the ADD and provides the needed focus to buckle down and work. Unlike bulimic workaholics, who are so preoccupied with perfectionism that they cannot start a project, attention deficit workaholics start many projects but cannot carry them out. Unlike relentless workaholics who compulsively follow through, attention deficit workaholics leave projects unfinished and half-baked to move on to the next excitement. Easily bored with the details of follow-through, they get high from creating ideas and starting many projects, but they have difficulty seeing them through to completion. Fassel (1990) has observed this workaholic type, whom she calls the innovators, on the job:
"They cannot keep their attention focused long enough to finish what they have created. Moreover, they report boredom with follow-through. Upon deeper investigation, I discovered that these workers were hooked on the adrenaline rush of the new idea, and felt let down by the painstaking development work They jumped to the new projects to get their high. Of course, with inadequate product development, these great innovations were just sitting on the shelves and not making profit for the company. (p. 82)"
Because attention deficit workaholics have a compulsion to impulsively jump into work projects before plans have been thoroughly contemplated or solidified, it is difficult for them to complete projects in a timely manner. Instead of giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences, or waiting and planning, their need for immediacy often causes them to become locked into a course of action. Typically, they proceed with projects without giving thorough attention to details or receiving valuable input from others. The results can be disastrous when the addiction outruns careful thought and reflection. At no time is the adage "haste makes waste" more appropriate than when attention deficit workaholics make decisions or launch projects before gathering all the facts and examining all the options. Lack of forethought often sends them back to clean up messes.
Savoring workaholics, the fourth type, are a contrast to attention deficit workaholics because they are slow, deliberate, and methodical. Consummate perfectionists, they are terrified deep down that the finished project is never good enough. This type of workaholic has difficulty discerning when something is incomplete or when its finished. They savor their work just as alcoholics would savor a shot of bourbon. When Sam balances his accounts, he will tabulate in 8 hours what most people could do in 1 hour. According to his wife, Sam has the same sort of intoxication with work that people who eat too much have with food. He is always working but never seems to accomplish much. Sam's wife said, "Sometimes I look at what he's done and it doesn't look like he's produced anything. For all I know he's adding up the same column of numbers day after day."
When savoring workaholics realize that they are nearly finished with a project, they inadvertently prolong it and create additional work. They are notorious for creating to-do lists that often take longer to generate than the completion of the tasks themselves. Sam says he takes great pride and pleasure in generating "to do" lists and in marking off each item as it is completed: "Creating lists dictated my work life. I always found a way to fill in any extra spaces or lines on my yellow pad with obscure chores so that I would always be busy." He says that each line that is marked off provides a great sense of satisfaction for him. It is a visible trophy symbolizing his accomplishment.
Savoring workaholics find it difficult to work as part of a team because of their tunnel vision and their detailed and self-absorbed approach to work. Sam drives colleagues and loved ones crazy with his nit-picking and inability to let things go because to him nothing ever feels finished. Colleagues complain that savoring workaholics drag their feet because they have to dot every i and cross every t. When others are ready to move on, savoring workaholics hold them back by overanalyzing and taking ideas apart, thinking them through from every angle, getting bogged down in detail, and sending things back to committee 15 different times. Because projects always feel incomplete, even when others feel they are finalized, savoring workaholics have difficulty with both closure of old tasks and initiation of new tasks in their work.
- Robinson, Bryan; A typology of workaholics with implications for counselors; Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling; Oct 2000; Vol. 21; Issue 1.
Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information
about an introduction to the new typology of workaholics. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
What is a "savoring workaholic"? To select and enter your answer go to .