Workahol is not in my Spellcheck?

Aside from the deformed word "irregardless," the term I despise most in our language is "workaholic." I bet a buddy once that irregardless was not in his dictionary, knowing full well that some fool editor at Merriam Webster had defined it as a nonstandard usage for "regardless," ignoring that it really means "not regardless." My friend pulled down his big red book with a smile to prove me wrong, only to find that I had utilized a nonstandard method of removing any reference. I enjoyed my Coke for having very literally won the bet, and I told my friend I had done him a favor by cutting a hole out of his dictionary.

Workaholic, of course, is the combination of "work" and "alcoholic" - as if someone might imbibe in workahol. (Note: begin new advertisement campaign. "Workahol! The drink for your office.") Coined in 1968, the word served as a setup for Rodney Dangerfield's joke that his father was a workaholic in the sense that he got drunk every time he thought about work. Coincidentally, I want to get drunk whenever I hear the expression used, not being a fan of new age portmanteaus. Looking at you, "webinar."

I could legitimately argue that I have the best job in the world. Seriously. But without a reason to stay late, I go home when I can. I'm not married to my work and don't intend to have it as my mistress. At the same time, my family knows that while they come first ultimately, there are certain instances when business takes precedent. I have missed my share of meals, weekends, and parties for the sake of commitment to my job. But that isn't workaholism; I was just a little workbuzzed. An occasional glass of work after dinner is fine. Downing a six pack of work every night is a problem.

Being a workaholic is a designation that bears little shame, and I estimate that I have heard it more as a badge of nobility and commitment than I have as disgrace or scorn. Nowhere in the business world is workaholism a condition deserving counseling, whereas most managers would prefer to have a few zealots on the team. Showing signs of workaholism, however, is absolutely a need for caution.

Workaholism can reveal itself in people in need of real help. Committing yourself manically to any activity can often be a signal of distress at home and in outside relationships. On a minor level, workaholism demonstrates insecurity. On a more significant front, it may be a symptom of mental health issues.

A 2016 Yale University study of workers revealed that among those deemed workaholics: 

  • 32.7 percent met ADHD criteria
  • 25.6 percent met OCD criteria
  • 33.8 percent met anxiety criteria
  • 8.9 percent met depression criteria

Rather than admire those who are driven at work, we may be better humans to ask if they need help, an EAP referral, or at least an ear. Mitch Hedberg (an actual alcoholic) joked that alcoholism is the one disease you can get yelled at for having. "Dangit, Otto, you're an alcoholic! Dangit, Otto, you have Lupus. One of those two doesn't sound right."

I would suggest that if you would consider intervention for a friend you suspected of abusing alcohol, you might be as noble to intervene with their workaholism.

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Elliot Anderson is the pseudonym of a midwestern father and writer who wishes work were not such a painful place for people. He believes if leaders would invoke simple courtesies, they could help employees thrive. As a team player, he brings joy to his workplace by cracking jokes and sharing food. He’s worked in both nonprofit and government organizations. He studied religion, journalism, and intercultural studies. Though you won’t find Elliot on social channels, he will respond to comments on his articles here.

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