Dead Bodies: How Leaders Can Combat Workaholism


The first time I saw a dead body in a street was outside my Tokyo office. He, “the body,” was dressed in a smart business suit; he looked to be in his 30s.

Cause of death? Workaholism.

In Japan, workaholism is called “karoshi”—death by overwork. Karoshi is estimated to cause 1,000 deaths per year and nearly 5% of that country’s stroke and heart attack deaths in employees under age 60. Known as “leisure illness” in The Netherlands, according to one study an estimated 3% of the nation’s population is affected. Elsewhere, workaholism is often called “the respectable addiction“:

  • Canada. One-third of Canadians consider themselves workaholics.
  • United Kingdom. Full time employees in the U.K. work the longest hours in Europe and a British Medical Association report found that 77% of consultants work more than 50 yours a week and 46% more than 60 hours.
  • United States. While the 40 hour week is generally accepted as “normal,” adults employed full-time have reported working an average of 47 hours each week.
  • North America and U.K. 1 in 6 employees now work more than 60 hours a week.

In a recent interview, singer/songwriter Alanis Morrisette spoke about how easily we can slide into workaholism and how tough it is to break free from it:

It’s the only addiction in the world that gets praised. So imagine trying to kick an addiction that you get promoted for.”

One Addiction Indicator: Vacations

images-2I remember feeling gobsmacked when a close friend started a new job in New Zealand. Day one she got 6 weeks of paid vacation leave. From my American ‘2-weeks that you have to earn over time’ experience, I honestly didn’t believe she was telling the truth. There for her wedding, which happened during her first month on the job, I was an eye-witness to her time-off and thus a believer.

Using vacation as an indicator, the top five workaholic nations: Japan, Australia, South Africa, South Korea, and United States. One recent report tells us that the average U.S. employee only takes half (51%) of their eligible paid time off; Americans are taking much less time off than ever before.

Curious how not taking vacation time impacts employees?

Lydia Dishman’s excellent article in Fast Company, Why Not Using All of Your Vacation Time is Hazardous to Your Health, details the negative mindset, health and well-being results of not taking time off. Interestingly, the article also speaks to 2-weeks off not being enough, citing Jessica de Bloom, a researcher from Radboud University in the Netherlands who has published some findings on longer vacations.

It’s Not Passion, It’s Addiction

As a recovering workaholic myself, I listen to my powerful women friends who work 12+ hours a day and on images-1weekends. They’re leaders, they sometimes say they love their jobs. One frequently calls herself “OCD” (obsessive compulsive disordered). I wonder, are they really addicts? Perhaps it’s not passion but addiction? Akin to the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, do they need to admit powerlessness—that their lives have become unmanageable due to work addiction?

Dr. Bryan Robinson has devoted his career to making sense of workaholism. “Yes, workaholism is an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s not the same as working hard or putting in long hours,” Robinson says. A leading researcher on the disorder and author of Chained to the Desk and other books on workaholism, Robinson’s workaholic styles in a nutshell:

Bulimic Workaholic Style: “Either I do it perfectly or not at all.”

Relentless Workaholic Style: “It has to be finished yesterday.”

Attention-Deficit Workaholic Style: Workaholics in this group use the adrenaline of overwhelming work pressure as a focusing device.

Savoring Workaholic Style: These workaholics are slow, methodical and overly scrupulous.

Do you see yourself or your employees using these workaholic styles?

Combat Workaholism

Leaders hurt more than individual employees when allowing workaholism to spread like a virus:  loss of productivity, more sick days, less creativity and innovation, decreased employee engagement, lack of employee retention–all things that impact the bottom line.

But workaholism, like all addictions, can be extraordinarily hard to change. “People will go through withdrawal,” says Dr. Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business in Camden, N.J., Porter studies workaholism and recommends that workaholics get professional help, along with enlisting the support of family members and friends to begin recovery.


5 Leadership “How To” Steps

1. Examine what you praise and promote. What changes do you need to make?

2. Not giving and insisting that paid time-off be taken? Start right now and stop putting strings on it (like “earning” vacation through time spent on the job). You can’t afford NOT to do this.

3. Have a “no contact” rule for employees who are taking time-off. Co-workers, and you, are not to make contact during employees’  vacations.

4. Set a “no email” rule for evenings and weekends. Yes, that means YOU too.

5. Be the role-model for healthy, non-workaholic behavior. What changes do you need to make in your behavior? A simple step: catch yourself saying how crazy hard you’re working? Stop sending that workaholism-promoting message.

Hard work you’re praising may actually be an unhealthy addiction. Before being forced to do a dead body count, leaders need to assume accountability for the health of more than than the bottom line:  stop praising and start combatting workaholism.







Featured image via


  1. […] Dead Bodies: How Leaders Can Combat Workaholism by @Jone Bosworth, J.D. Leaders need to assume accountability for the health of more than the bottom line: stop praising and start combatting workaholism. […]

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