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Workaholism – It is a trauma response & a coping strategy? [+Quiz]

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Workaholism is an addiction and a coping strategy, it protects us, gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, many of us don't know any other way of finding a sense of control and safety over our own lives.

However, the cost of workaholism is steep and a time comes when we have to find a healthy middle ground and balance. We can gain more control over our lives and create the safety we long for which often involves setting boundaries that might not be 'normal' in our work or family culture. The first step is to understand why workaholism may just be an echo of old trauma.

The next step to healing is asking for help. You will not save yourself alone - not after a lifetime of being in survival mode. You need to trust that you are worth the effort and ask for help, make time for your healing journey and put the work in yourself.

Workaholism – It is a trauma response and a coping strategy

Coping With Trauma through Work

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 20% of working-age people suffer from mental illness.[1] Workaholism is a typical coping technique; while it is not often publicized, labouring long hours to avoid confronting unpleasant or distressing thoughts or sensations may be just as harmful as other unhealthy habits. Many experts and psychologists, as well as those who identify as workaholics or high achievers, discuss the link between trauma and overwork.[2]

Edward Khantzian, former professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, originated the self-medication hypothesis of substance abuse. In his writing, he dissed that “human emotional suffering and pain” and an “inability to tolerate [one’s] feelings” are at the root of the addiction. The desire and need to numb or control distress, cope with low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression may push people into using any substance such as alcohol, drugs or cigarettes and any other unhealthy behaviour such as gambling, compulsive eating or overworking. While the word "workaholic" has been thrown around carelessly in recent articles, a workaholic isn't merely someone who works long hours or puts off taking vacations. Instead, they labour so hard that they disregard other aspects of their lives (such as relationships, rest, or nutrition), and as a result, their health is eroded and they may become unhappy and obsessive.

How to recognise workaholism in ourselves

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale [3] is designed to determine whether or not someone is addicted to their job. It was created at the University of Bergen and is widely used in medicine. The scale assesses a variety of criteria, including how frequently various parts of your life apply to you.

Work addiction often has its roots in childhood trauma.

Working throughout the day and continuously being on the go might be a means for wanting to avoid focusing on negative sentiments. A common childhood trauma linked to workaholism is the result of parentification, which is a role reversal between children and parents. This role reversal often occurs when parents are not capable of active parenting due to mental health issues, poor physical health or are distant from the children for one reason or another. Hence children may find themselves feeling forced to go through life and act as responsible and active parents to their own parents. [4] As a result of this unique conditioning, the relative degree of control over work makes it an excellent escape for people who have suffered from childhood traumas - especially parentification. When such children make their way into adulthood, they enter adulthood believing that if they work really hard, it might bring some degree of peace at home. They become excellent scholars, high achievers, professors, employers and others find it very easy to respect and admire them. However the cost for the individual carrying the trauma is high - stress, depression and constant emotional turmoil that is often suppressed and avoided affect their overall wellbeing negatively.

Adults who have been traumatised as children may get their pride and self-esteem from their work. Overworking is a coping strategy and it can be a way for someone to feel valuable and worthy and/or detached from situations and relationships where they feel powerless in.

The issue is that external affirmation is never enough, and the workaholic will continue to seek it out relentlessly and insatiably. If a person felt unappreciated and unseen during their childhood they may conclude that they must do things to earn love and affection - thus becoming human doers from a young age. These traits can be toxic and if they’re not addressed properly in time, they show up in adulthood too. [5]

The problem is - many don't recognise Workaholism as a real addiction

Work addiction and abusing one's own self in the name of labour is not a recognised medical disease or mental disorder, despite the fact that it is a well recognised and accepted idea in popular media. Furthermore, there are over 40 years of scholarship on the issue, yet it is not listed in the DSM-5, the most recent edition of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders."[6]

Labouring —even excessive work—is often thought of as a desirable attribute rather than a problem, which is one of the causes for this absence of acknowledgement of work addiction. Overwork is rewarded in both monetary and cultural terms, and it may lead to the employee being viewed in a more favourable light in various ways. Workplace addiction, like other addictions, has a serious impact on a person and interferes with productivity and relationships.

If you believe you are hooked to your job, take a break and observe how you feel. You may benefit from finding the right therapist if you really can't stop thinking about your work and what you do. Ask yourself, are you fleeing to work to avoid other obligations or unpleasant feelings? If so, seeking professional help will go a long way in helping you build a healthy balance that honours your emotional needs and professional aspirations too.

The Resources We Have For You

If you are keen to find more about workaholism and how you can reclaim your life, we recommend that you keep exploring our blog, taking the quizzes and if you wish to get on a more structured and supported journey to ending both your workaholism and burning out - check out our dedicated course at:




  3. Seybold, Karen Colapietro, and Paul R. Salomone. "Understanding workaholism: A review of causes and counseling approaches." Journal of Counseling & Development 73.1 (1994): 4-9.

  4. Carroll JJ, Robinson BE. Depression and Parentification among Adults as Related to Parental Workaholism and Alcoholism. The Family Journal. 2000




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