When the American psychologist Wayne Oates died in 1999, The New York Times began his obituary by noting two facts. First, the man had authored an astonishing 57 books. Second—and presumably not coincidentally—he had invented the word workaholic. Oates coined the now-ubiquitous term in a 1968 essay, in which he confessed that his own addiction to industriousness had been a disorder akin to substance abuse. Of course, he acknowledged, workaholism is much more socially respectable than drinking a fifth a day—more the sort of personality trait that might help someone, say, earn an obit in the paper of record.
What, precisely, qualifies someone as a workaholic? There’s still no single accepted medical definition. But psychologists have tried to distinguish people merely devoted to their careers from the true addicts. A seminal 1992 paper on how to measure the condition argued that sufferers work not only compulsively but also with little enjoyment . Newer diagnostic tests attempt to single out those who, among other behaviors, binge and then suffer from withdrawal—just as someone would with, say, a gambling or cocaine habit .
Even as the precise outlines of workaholism remain a bit fuzzy, various studies have tried to identify its physical and emotional effects. At the risk of carrying on like a Pfizer ad: research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression . That’s to say nothing of its toll on family members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spouses of workaholics tend to report unhappiness with their marriages . Having a workaholic parent is hardly better. A study of college undergraduates found that children of workaholics scored 72% higher on measures of depression than children of alcoholics. They also exhibited more-severe levels of “parentification”—a term family therapists use for sons and daughters who, as the paper put it, “are parents to their own parents and sacrifice their own needs … to accommodate and care for the emotional needs and pursuits of parents or another family member” .
How many people are true workaholics? One recent estimate suggests that about 10% of US adults might qualify ; the proportion is as high as 23% among lawyers, doctors, and psychologists . Still more people may be inclined to call themselves workaholics, whether or not they actually are: in 1998, 27% of Canadians told the country’s General Social Survey that they were workaholics, including 38% of those with incomes over $80,000 . (Even among those with no income, 22% called themselves workaholics! Presumably some were busy homemakers and students.)
The condition may well have a certain social cachet; as the psychologist Bryan Robinson once put it, work addiction might be “the best-dressed mental health problem” of them all. In one of the rare economic studies on the subject, researchers found that the educated and affluent were much more likely than lower-income Americans to put off retirement, a possible sign of workaholism in action . Such delayed retirement certainly gives new meaning to the phrase worked to death. For what it’s worth, the concept would not raise many eyebrows in Japan, where grueling job hours have long been a norm, and there’s a word for death by overwork—karoshi. The country’s courts have even recognized it as a basis for wrongful-death suits .
Jordan Weissmann is an associate editor at The Atlantic.