The Real Reason You Need a Vacation From Your Vacation is Because You Never Actually Took One

Imagine an extremely prevalent addiction that can almost guarantee a slew of health problems such as heart attacks, ulcers, strokes, insomnia, anxiety attacks, and depression. Then envision that it can in many cases lead to early death, suicide, and/or secondary addiction to drugs, alcohol, and prescription medication. Sounds awful, right? What if I told you that this addiction was embraced by society, even encouraged and that it interferes with a person’s ability to maintain personal relationships, leisure activities, and outside interests? Sounds impossible.

Well, the awfully impossible exists and it goes by the real name of workaholism or workaholic syndrome. Dr. Diane Fassel who authored a well-known novel, Working Ourselves to Death, notes that workaholics “are not aware that [they’re] really tired or worn down or have physical symptoms. Workaholics are usually taken out by a heart attack or stroke, or collapse with a really catastrophic illness”. Not to be confused with overworking, workaholic syndrome is a very real and very common occurrence in many developed countries. In fact, in the Netherlands, where it is termed “leisure illness”, it is estimated to affect upwards of 3% of their entire population. Japan estimates that karoshi or “death by overwork” accounts for nearly 10,000 deaths of working men in their country every year. Canada has an entire third of their people who consider themselves workaholics. In the U.S. it is referred to as the “respectable addiction” and currently there have not been any comprehensive studies to estimate the portion of the public who are affected. However, what is well-researched and documented is that Americans generally work longer hours and use fewer vacation days than their European and Japanese peers. Therefore, one could extrapolate that workaholism should be more rampant as well.

Interestingly, the American Psychiatric Association classifies workaholism as a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder and can actually be a manifestation of deeper emotion issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem, and intimacy problems. For typical workaholics, there is actually a physiological response to the chronic, obsessive, and often manic episodes of overwork. Studies have shown that huge surges of adrenaline are produced and that this constant supercharged state can exact enormous tolls on body system functions and hormone balance. In fact, it is these floods of adrenaline, which become the source of addiction for workaholics with many often forming actually physical dependency. From conversations with Dr. Jeffrey P. Kahn, MD, a Manhattan psychiatrist and a consultant for the American Psychiatric Association committee on psychiatry in the workplace, a recent special report on workaholism notes, “Workaholics’…think about work constantly and if unable to work, feel panicky or depressed. They resist taking breaks or rewarding themselves with vacations. If they must take vacations, they’re likely to be highly scheduled and goal-oriented…[they] need goals to aim for. [They] push and push, and as they approaching their goal, they need the next goal. A workaholic is not able to stop and enjoy their accomplishments.”

Even perhaps more tragic are the consequences for the families of those afflicted with workaholic syndrome. Those living with workaholics tend to report greater marital estrangement, higher divorce rates, and a general lack of an ability to control their lives. Children in families with workaholics may be the hardest hit. One man who for much of his professional life routinely worked 70-80 hour weeks with weekends often thrown in acknowledges that his young children basically lost their father for an entire decade. He admits, “I can’t remember any interaction with my kids. All three have told me that at some point they wanted to leave home. I was so busy completing the process of each day, I didn’t realize I wasn’t present for my family.”

However, if this sounds like you take heart because there is help out there. Just as with any addiction there are many programs around to offer guidance and support, particularly Workaholics Anonymous. For many, all that is needed is to reconnect with their feelings and to admit that their behavior is destructive, neurotic, and quite easily deadly. Also it is important for sufferers to recognize the fact that such mental and emotion damage can actually make them a less effective worker. Plus taking on a more moderate workload will leave time for activities that you truly love to do, which will in turn create it’s own healthy and sustainable rush. Who knows, you may even finally get to see that movie everyone is always talking about or read that book that has always intrigued you. Just make sure you don’t fall into the trap of seeing how fast you can read the story.


Wiliams, R.B. The Hidden Cost of Workaholism. The Financial Post. 10 July 2009.

Stein, L. Workaholism: Special Report. Consumer Health Interactive. 29 April 2009.

Luke Manley, MPH

View posts by Luke Manley, MPH
Luke grew up in and around Boston, Massachusetts before moving north to attend the University of Maine at Orono for his undergraduate degree. After living briefly in Portland, Oregon he is now working as a Research Phlebotomist and Grants Manager for the Psychiatry Department at the University of Southern California. His passion lies in travel and working internationally, especially in the Middle-East. He has spent time in Turkey, researching the Turkish Healthcare system and recently returned from Syria, Palestine, and Tunisia, assisting with the MedCHAMPS project, which is studying cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. In the Fall he will be moving to Washington, D.C. to pursue a PhD and begin his career in International Relations.
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