Meeting The Deadline: Workaholics and their Brains

It’s 8:30 p.m. and Sunitra Patel is still at her desk. She promised she’d make dinner tonight, but her husband said he’ll probably be at work for at least another hour. Another Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods frozen dinner will go into the microwave again tonight. At age 38, Sunitra is putting off having children while she “establishes her career.” Her husband, five years older, is in accord with her decision. Perhaps in a few years.


In truth, they’re too tired for sex, other than, maybe, brief pneumatics every few weekends or so. More than a third of American women have their first child in their early 40s anyway. But for Andrea Gleason, it’s caused problems: “I love my work, so does my husband. We’ve traveled a lot, and then when I hit 41 we decided to try for a baby.” They thought it would be easy, three years later and tens of thousands of dollars spent on fertility doctors, Andrea and Ben have realized that putting work before family may have been a mistake. “We were on such a treadmill,” Ben says, “there was always another deadline, another project, another goal to meet. Everything for the corporation, and yes, we’ve been well rewarded financially, but all of a sudden our great marriage feels a little empty knowing we’ll probably never have children.”

Are they workaholics, or do they just love their work and the sense of achievement it brings?

It may sound surprising, but studies show that workaholics have distinct neurological and psychiatric profiles similar to those addicted to narcotics. In the United States, people tend to see workaholism as a good thing. A man dedicated to his family. A woman determined to reach the top. But scientists are increasingly finding that workaholics are typically less productive on average than employees who simply manage their time more effectively. Workaholism is like any addiction — those addicted don’t know when to stop, have poor impulse control, higher health risks, worse relationships, and ultimately disappointment when they find they achieved goals that benefitted their employer, but their life remains empty.

For the workaholic, obsessional left-brain “thinking” overwhelms right-brain “feeling” — they thrive on adrenaline, and ultimately the increased cortisol and inflammation in their body is also what will kill them. Workaholics tend to walk fast, talk fast, eat quickly, and drink high amounts of caffeinated beverages. They tend to have tight body and facial movements. Dr. Archibald Hart, in his book “The Hidden Link Between Adrenalin and Stress,” notes that elevated adrenalin sees a rise in cholesterol, a narrowing of the capillaries and other blood vessels that can shut down blood supply to the heart muscle, an increase in the likelihood of blood clots, and plaque on arteries — an indicator for heart disease, and later dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Workaholism in Japan is such a serious social problem that their federal government persistently intervenes to mandate forced vacation time — at least a week a year. Many die early deaths, a phenomenon called karoshi — which may have been responsible for Keizo Obuchi’s fatal stroke in 2000, Japan’s former prime minister.

Workaholism and disappointment at not achieving work-related goals can sometimes lead to suicide. David Kellerman, the CFO of Freddie Mac hanged himself, reportedly for this reason. The German billionaire Adolf Merckle threw himself before a train in his hometown.

In Norway — which ranks as the most prosperous nation in the world and also the happiest according to numerous consumer indexes — work addiction is not regarded as a positive attribute. It is seen as the symptom of an addictive, mentally ill personality. The best research has been done on workaholism in that country, where some 8.3 percent of the population is said to be afflicted.


Postdoctoral fellow Cecilie Schou Andreassen — from the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen, in Norway — developed an instrument to measure work addiction called the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. It looks at the core symptoms found in drug addictions; i.e., mood, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse. Andreassen’s data showed that workaholics score higher on psychiatric symptoms than nonworkaholics:

  • 32.7 percent met ADHD criteria (12.7 percent among nonworkaholics)
  • 25.6 percent had OCD tendencies (8.7 percent among nonworkaholics)
  • 33.8 percent were anxious (11.9 percent among nonworkaholics)
  • 8.9 percent were depressed (2.6 percent among nonworkaholics)

The study found that both men and women were equally affected, with younger people being more susceptible. “Workaholism seems unrelated to gender, education level, marital status, or part-time versus full-time employment,” she said. Those with children were more affected than those without.


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