The Mental Health Impact of Perfectionism and Workaholism

“Workaholism is a soul-destroying addiction that changes people’s personalities and the values they live by,” wrote Barbara Killinger Ph.D. on Psychology Today in 2011. “It distorts the reality of each family member, threatens family security, and often leads to family break-up. Tragically, workaholics eventually suffer the loss of personal and professional integrity.”

In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, Khara Croswaite Brindle—a licensed professional counselor and the owner of Croswaite Counseling—looked at the pitfalls of perfectionism and workaholism. As a self-identified “perfectioneur” (perfectionist entrepreneur), she once was running herself into the ground for success. As a therapist, she taught people about self-care and balance on a daily basis yet was unable to do it for herself. She now helps clients to get from workaholic to well-balanced.

First off, Khara invited her webinar audience to describe a perfectionist. Self-critical, lost in detail, and afraid of making mistakes were some of the answers. Perfectionists “want to be known for the quality of their work,” explained Khara—an immediate link to workaholism.

Perfectionism is linked to high expectations of oneself and has really taken off as a phenomenon since the 1980s—the age of “Reaganomics.” Khara uses the Enneagram personality test to discover how her clients relate to other people. The Enneagram is a typology system that describes human personality as nine interconnected personality types.

Researchers have noted that members of the “millennial and Gen Z generations show higher rates of perfectionism,” Khara said, an indication that the problematic personality trait is becoming ever more widespread. There is a lot of pressure on those generations to do their best, to get into a top college, to have a successful career.

This brings us to workaholism, a kind of hustle mentality that glorifies overwork. Dr. Killinger defined workaholics as work-obsessed individuals who gradually become “emotionally crippled and addicted to power and control in a compulsive drive to gain approval and public recognition of success.”

Smartphones have now taken workaholism to a whole new level. People can be tethered to their workplace 24/7, reading work emails on vacation, during weekends, and in the middle of the night. Khara presented a book by award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee called Do Nothing: Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving, in which the author recommends investing in “quality idle time” and spending face-to-face time with friends and family as a counter to workaholism.

Another title on Khara booklist is Chained to the Desk in which psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson categorized workaholics into four types which Khara likes to call churners, dreamers, sprinters, and plodders.

Out of the four, the churners are the classic, most recognizable workaholics. They work and work, they get stuff done and reap a lot of praise for it. The second category is comprised of the “attention-deficit workaholics” or dreamers. “They are the innovators with big ideas,” Khara said. Often others have to implement their ideas. The third type is the “bulimic” workaholic. Khara likes to call them sprinters. They typically exhibit a “start-stop” pattern at the workplace. Last, but not least, the plodders take their time, they don’t rush anything. “Their perfectionism shows up in nitpicking. If it’s not perfect, they’re not done,” explained Khara.

The Mental Health Impact

The mindsets described above frequently induce cognitive distortions familiar to practitioners of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). There tends to be a relentlessly negative inner critic and a lot of black-and-white thinking. For some this may even lead to suicidal ideation: if I cannot have it, I might as well give up living.

Pressure and stress may lead to attempts at self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Since this behavior is a major driver of addiction it often creates more anguish and pain down the road, as “it addresses the symptoms but not the problem.” Workaholics and perfectionists “struggle with self-care,” Khara told the webinar participants because they don’t think they can invest enough time in such activities.

This in turn frequently leads to burnout, a state of physical or emotional exhaustion. A 2020 FlexJobs/Mental Health America survey suggested that “75 percent of people [in the US] have experienced burnout at work, with 40 percent saying they’ve experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic.”

Symptoms of burnout include irritability, sleep disruption, weight gain or loss, stomach problems, and even cracked teeth—thought to be the result of stress caused by the pandemic and work-related stress. “2020 saw more cracked teeth than the six years prior,” said Khara.

And finally, the combination of perfectionism, workaholism, and the pandemic has led to a significant increase in anxiety disorders.

Treatment Strategies

The cognitive distortions of perfectionism and workaholism can be addressed with reframing or restructuring. Instead of succumbing to negative thinking patterns, people can simply ask themselves, “Is there another way to look at this situation?” or, “What are some other possible reasons this could have happened?” Pointing out alternatives can help people see things from a more positive point of view.

Khara recommends using client-appropriate language. Workaholics typically have a hard time engaging with “hearts-and-flowers” language. “They don’t want to go from ‘I am a piece of crap and need to be more productive’ to ‘I’m a wonderful person.’ That’s too much of a stretch for them. When reframing, try to be as realistic as possible.”

The same applies to self-care. “If we ask them to take a seven-day vacation, they will say no. That’s not a financial strain, it’s the productivity strain,” Khara said. “It’s the 500 emails they will have when they get back. It’s ‘I’m in the middle of a project.’ Instead, I want them to embrace 5–10 minutes of something.”

Five to ten minutes of walking. 5–10 minutes of music. “We notice there is a lot less resistance to this strategy that way—putting a smaller timeframe on it.” This is more manageable, especially in this culture of being busy.

What would a meditation look like or a few minutes of mindfulness? Perfectionists and workaholics need to be more aware of their damaging behaviors. Daily identification of behaviors and activities that are expending valuable energy and those that create value, growth, and opportunity is key to a healthy work-life balance.

Part of that is the ability to say “no.” No to more work on your plate. No to too many long hours in the office. Take a break from your inbox. Engage in self-care.

“No is a complete sentence,” Khara said. Sadly, for many of us, it is hard to say.

Harmony Foundation is one of the longest-running and most successful addiction treatment programs in the world. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, or you have questions about our programs, call us today at (970) 432-8075 to get the help needed as soon as possible. Our experienced staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.