The link between traumatic experiences and the development of addiction has been well-documented. Edward Khantzian, who originated the self-medication hypothesis of substance abuse, writes that “human emotional suffering and pain” and an “inability to tolerate [one’s] feelings” are at the root of addiction. People may use alcohol, drugs, or gambling to numb or control distress, low self-esteem, anxiety, or depression.
But there is virtually no empirical research on the potential link between trauma and overwork or work addiction. While a 2015 study on women survivors of intimate partner violence and a 2013 study on survivors of childhood sexual abuse both indicate that these populations may be inclined toward workaholic behaviors, there is no research on why trauma survivors might turn to work to cope with their feelings.
But a number of researchers and clinicians—and people who self-identify as workaholics or overachievers—believe the connection between trauma and overwork is likely. Some believe coping with trauma is at the very heart of a work addiction.
While the term has been used loosely in recent articles, a workaholic isn’t just someone who works a lot or delays taking vacation. Instead, they work so much that they neglect other areas of their life (like relationships, sleep, or health), and they may become unhappy and obsessive in the process. While there is no scholarly consensus, researchers typically define workaholics with at least three of the following four characteristics: working to the extent that one neglects self-care or one’s personal life; experiencing little enjoyment of work; working more than is expected or than the circumstances demand; and displaying controlling behaviors, like not delegating or trusting others.