An Excessive Devotion to Work Camouflages and Drives Anxiety

4 min read

Worry has traveled with me most of my life. I longed to know that things were going to be okay. Whatever that meant. I have this random memory, age 7, sitting in a library with those simple first or second-grade worksheets as I thought, as long as I do my homework, I’ll be alright. Homework turned into working hard. As I got older, my worries turned into an invisible anvil above my head, and that chant followed: If I just work hard enough everything will be okay. It served me well in the short term. In the long term, it distracted me from recreation, relationships, and little meaningful things. As I faced troubles far from my control, like grief, I had to call upon strategies other than hard work to overcome my spirals.

The Hard Work Story

The hard work story is not an uncommon one. A sense of control, even if just an illusion, grants a sense of comfort. Yet, the story is problematic. It falls under cognitive behavioral therapy’s “habit of thought” wherein one’s locus of control trespasses into things that are in no way under one’s control. While one can logically label this habit unreasonable, letting go of a sense of control is an entire thing altogether.

Even when irrational, a vicious need for control can get out of control creating a mental space where success in one’s pursuits is vital. Humans make mistakes. Perfection is impossible. And the reality is that usually, imperfection is acceptable. Excessive dedication to work is linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety (Serrano-Fernandez and colleagues, 2021), which makes sense as a bi-directional difficulty.

Often, our worries are not a result of things within our jurisdiction. Life is unpredictable. We lose people we love, we get sick, we hurt. The hard work story links with another cognitive distortion, the just world belief (Busseri and colleagues, 2020). This distortion paints a world where good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. We can tell ourselves that if we do good enough, we’ll be okay. Yet, that’s not how life works. In a just world, there would be no need for children’s hospitals.

While excessive devotion to work is different from other addictions in that it often is associated with over-control rather than under-control, it shares quite a bit with the others. Just as an alcoholic might feel incredibly uncomfortable without access to alcohol, a workaholic is likely to feel anxious when the task is to relax. Work can become an insidious obsession. Most people who struggle are likely to deny the problem at first.

Indeed, if it helps one get ahead is it a problem?

From a perspective of values and quality of life, in most cases, yes.

Even a person who does not typically display these traits may engage in this strategy during times of stress.

Embracing Uncertainty

Embracing uncertainty is both freeing and terrifying. For an anxious person, facing the unknown can feel intolerable. Yet, accepting this reality is necessary to free one’s self from the traps of the hard work story.

Because the hard work story often distracts us from what matters. It places our focus on the future, as the only time we have slipped away. Hard work typically focuses on achievement. While achievement is an important value to many, most of us have other values as with relationships and enjoying life. An addiction to work can get in the way of this, literally pulling us away from life outside work, or otherwise pulling our minds away as we obsess over work.

A balance between being and doing is key to a values-driven life. Overfocus on work pulls the see-saw down toward doing. Learning how to be can be difficult particularly when that means facing the worries that overworking has hidden.


Psychotherapy can be helpful to individuals seeking to release themselves from using work to cope with anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy can assist with untangling the underlying cognitive distortions. Acceptance commitment therapy is available to help one define values and re-engage contact with the present moment. Radically open dialectical behavioral therapy is valuable as well, particularly when excessive work has affected one’s relationships.

In Closing

While excessive devotion to work is sometimes seen in a positive light, it can be detrimental to one’s psychological health and sense of meaning. It can represent a denial of the reality that there is much we can not control in life, leading to a futile struggle. Still, overcoming this struggle is possible. Contrary to the fear that letting go would lead to a deterioration in performance, a values-focus is likely to enhance one’s health and engagement in a meaning-driven life.

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