London - When my doctor told me I was a workaholic, my first reaction was: so what? Who doesn’t work too hard these days? The idea that overwork could be a medical diagnosis seemed ridiculous. But my doctor was adamant.
My years of working around the clock, sending 200 emails a day, living off grabbed coffees and no sleep, had taken their toll.
Aged 36, I had woken up that morning and was unable to move. For five hours I just lay in bed in a near-catatonic state.
When I was finally able to drag myself to see my doctor, he was unequivocal: I had a real problem. He explained that all my health issues – chronic eczema, mouth ulcers, bloated tummy, depression and panic attacks – were caused by my addiction to work.
“You are working yourself to death,” he said. “You need to stop. Immediately.”
We all use the term workaholic lightly – in the high-powered financial environments I worked in, it was used as a metaphorical badge of honour – but few know that it is an addictive condition now widely accepted by medics.
A workaholic is someone who is so addicted to their job that they do it at the expense of their family, their marriage, their relationships and their health.
While someone who works hard will go home and enjoy a normal life, a workaholic’s obsession with their career is all-consuming. Nothing else matters.
The Japanese have a term for it – karoshi – which means “death by overwork”. In our western culture, which rewards hard work, over-achievement and financial success, more and more of us are suffering it. Most sufferers will be undiagnosed. So how did I get to this state?
I started working in an office administrative role at the age of 19. I came from a family where praise was rare. As I plunged into office teamwork, I finally felt accepted and part of something.
My boss would praise me for my hard work and gradually my self-esteem became dependent on the judgement of my colleagues.
The nature of a workaholic depends on adrenalin, so as well as working 11-hour days I had irrepressible energy for nights out at restaurants and bars.
But the warning signs were already present. When I was just 21, I walked to the office one day and felt an abrupt pain in my lower abdomen. It was so severe that I doubled over.
This kept happening. I would be in the middle of a conversation and the pain would stab me, stopping me in my tracks. I wondered whether I might have a grumbling appendix and eventually called my doctor.
“Look what you’ve done to yourself. Your colon is inflamed,” he scolded as he pushed down on my tender stomach. He said it was down to stress. But I ignored him. I thought I was invincible. That year I moved to London, where I got a job in a financial corporation. I worked every hour I could, and was quickly promoted to project manager.
Years went by and my job continued to swamp my whole existence. I would send nearly 200 emails a day and attend countless meetings in between making dozens of telephone calls. I worked at weekends, was always late when meeting friends and was never away from my phone.
Unsurprisingly, health problems were still lurking in the background. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t know why. By my mid-20s my stomach was constantly bloated, even though I barely ate. I had eczema all over my body, mouth ulcers and acne. Dermatologists kept diagnosing stress, but I ignored them.
I was attracted to difficult men, whom I treated exactly like work projects. If they tried to challenge me about my work obsession, I would have a panic attack.
The first time this happened I was about 24 and in the middle of an argument about my emotional unavailability.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. My face went numb, as though I was having a stroke. I gasped for air and felt my heart pounding in my chest. I had these attacks more frequently, including three in the office.
After telling my doctor about these, I was put on anti-depressants and tranquillisers. As soon as they kicked in I threw myself back into the only thing that had any meaning for me – my work.
After that fateful morning when I woke almost paralysed three years ago, I was admitted to The Priory, a mental health hospital. I remember walking towards the building, which is surrounded by grass, and everything looked stark and bleak. While I was there I started to understand the nature of my addiction to work. It is an addiction just like any other – to cocaine, alcohol, sex or gambling.
I was addicted to highs and to constant stimulation that came with my job. Substitute the word “work” for “narcotics”, and the underlying need to numb oneself was the same.
I was also diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and this, with my severe depression and anxiety, has put a stop to my career. I no longer work because I am not well enough. My life as I knew it has been taken away from me.
I partly blame my parents for never praising me, and I thoroughly blame our work culture. It is unaccep-table to expect 24-hour commitment to a job and people are being pushed to their limits.
Now I live from day to day. It is hard for me to do much. I have a loving boyfriend and friends whom I still see. On good days I feel grateful. If I walked into a room now, I could immediately identify the workaholics. They are the ones who won’t stand still.
When I see friends who still work in the city, I see elements of myself at my worst reflected in them. And I warn them, and anyone else who reads this and sees a reflection of themselves, to take care.
ARE YOU ADDICTED TO WORK?
About 12 percent of Britons work more than 50 hours a week, while one in 10 wakes up at night to check emails. Stress now accounts for 10.8 million lost work days a year. If you answer “yes” to three or more of these questions, you could need to seek help:
1 Do you get more excited about your work than about family?
2 Do you take work with you to bed or on holiday?
3 Do you work more than 40 hours a week?
4 Do you take on extra work because you are concerned that it won’t otherwise get done?
5 Have your family or friends given up expecting you to be on time?
6 Do you believe that it is okay to work long hours if you love your job?
7 Do you get impatient with people who have other priorities besides work?
8 Are you afraid that if you don’t work hard you’ll lose your job? – Daily Mail