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Advice from a recovering workaholic: break free

Bryan Robinson, author of <em>Chained to the Desk in a Hybrid World. </em>
Michael Mauney
NYU Press
Bryan Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk in a Hybrid World.

When work is all consuming, it can exact a high price. This is not news to anyone who has grown up with work-obsessed parents or who loves their job so much that it has become part of who they are.

It's a familiar topic for Bryan E. Robinson, a psychotherapist in Asheville, N.C. He's been writing about work-life balance for more than 20 years, and has updated his guidance in an aptly-titled book, Chained to the Desk in a Hybrid World.

As a college professor, Robinson found his anxiety would rise in his idle moments. His work compulsion — even while on vacation — led to frayed relations with his spouse. He reflects on this experience in the book, while sharing the stories of other work-obsessed people.

In the introduction, Robinson writes, "Many clinicians and business leaders — vast numbers of whom are workaholics themselves — still do not recognize workaholism, job burnout, or eighteen-hour pressure cooker days as a mental health problem."

In 2019, the World Health Organization took a step in that direction when it included burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" in its International Classification of Diseases handbook.

In an interview with NPR's A Martinez, Robinson said Americans need to be more mindful of the long-term consequences of overworking. "If I fight my workaholism, that's like fighting the fire department when your house is on fire," he said. "You add stress. You don't fight yourself. You don't attack yourself. You bring compassion to it."

So in his book, Robinson attempts to answer the question "how do you bring compassion to the part of you that wants to work day and night instead of fight it?"

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

On being a workaholic

A work addict is someone who uses their work like a drug addict or someone a compulsive gambler. And it comes from a deeper need inside. I remember times when there was a weekend and there was nothing to do, at least personally to do — how terrifying that was for me.

I remember one occasion where I searched for some project and read the newsletter at the university, and there was a call for grants. And how calm I felt when I put the handout under my arm, just like an alcoholic putting a bottle under his arm. For me, I'm recovering. But my work for a long time was anesthetic; it really calmed me down. Without it, my anxiety went through the roof.

The cover of Bryan Robinson's book.
/ NYU Press
NYU Press
The cover of Bryan Robinson's book.

On what work addiction looks like in 2023

Now, there are different levels of work addiction: People who are work addicts or even workaholics tend to bring that with them to the workplace. It's their compulsiveness, and they will often seek work out if it's not strenuous enough. And I know saying that sounds counterintuitive. Most people are trying to avoid work. Why would someone want to work? Well, because there's a deeper reason for it.

This is not about hard work. This is about compulsive overworking and the inability to turn it off to the point that people's lives go down the tubes. The Japanese have a term for it: karoshi, or "death from overwork." Working from seven in the morning to 11 at night. Forty-year-olds keel over at their desks. We don't even have a word for it in our culture. We talk about overworking or workaholism but we don't talk about people who are dying from it — and they actually do.

On the symptoms of a workaholic

One is the internal signs and those can be physical, physiological, stress related symptoms, such as gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, headaches. And psychosomatic illnesses. The other is from the outside. I'm kind of amazed at some of the employers that I work with, actually. They don't want workaholics working for them because they feel like they're really not as productive — they're so busy manufacturing work that they don't get done what needs to get done.

On how to change how you think about work

Well, one of the ways is paying attention to what's going on inside. We have parts or protectors that take over and they eclipse us. They eclipse who we really are sometimes. And recovery, healthy living and happiness are about not allowing these aspects of us to run the show and pull us around by the nose.

We're not passengers in our bodies. And so we don't want anything to drive us. We want to get out of the steering wheel and whatever is driving us, we want to put it in the passenger seat and fasten the seat belt. But everybody wants to be driving their own life.

And when I say driving, I'm not talking about being driven. I'm talking about being drawn instead of driven. Drawn is when we come from that center. I call it the "C-mode" because it's calm, curious, confident, clear. The way to get there is to not let the survival parts of us take over.

Miranda Kennedy edited the digital and Mansee Khurana produced the audio. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 7, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this story, Asheville, N.C., was misspelled. It has been corrected here.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.

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