by Bryan Robinson
NYU Press, 2007
Review by James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA on Oct 7th 2008
Have you or someone you know ever been called a workaholic? Most people understand what the term means but on a clinical level, work addiction is not easily diagnosed nor is it a recognized psychiatric disorder. Chained to the Desk seeks to clarify the concept of workaholism, its origins, and treatment. The book is intended for mental health professionals as well as general readers who may be concerned about unhealthy work habits.
Author Bryan E. Robinson is a psychotherapist who has written extensively about work addiction. He defines the problem as "an obsessive compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an overindulgence in work to the exclusion of most other activities." Robinson adopts an addiction and family systems model to support his theories and treatment recommendations.
The book distinguishes between "hard work and workaholism." Various life pressures sometimes demand increased work commitment that frequently is situational and time limited. Conversely, Robinson believes that a person with work addiction operates at full throttle all the time, using work as an escape and allowing it to take control 24/7. The book includes a Work Addiction Risk Test (WART) which the author designed as a self-rating scale or for administration in a therapeutic context.
On the question of etiology, Robinson explains work addiction as a problem "driven by deeper, internal needs that have roots in the family of origin." Many workaholics, he suggests, were raised by parents who struggled with alcoholism, mood disorders, and other conflicts that forced their children to become "little adults." As children, workaholics learned to overachieve and overcompensate in response to the unrealistic responsibilities that were thrust upon them. Not all professionals will agree with this psychodynamic interpretation but certainly, a person's early learning history must be considered as an influence on later dysfunction.
The book shines in its examination of cultural and environmental factors that support work addiction. Robinson discusses how many companies reinforce compulsive work with financial rewards to employees, the potential for career advancement, and other benefits not afforded "less productive" workers. Advances in communications technology have made it possible to stay in touch with the workplace at any time and from any location. And then there is our Puritan Ethic, which drives a relentless "nose to the grindstone" existence. As articulated throughout the book, this lifestyle all but eliminates leisure activities, hobbies, and meaningful time with family and friends.
Robinson also posits that overt work patterns themselves are insufficient determinants of workaholism. He advances the theory that work addiction is not created by the workplace but instead is a person-specific compulsive disorder fueled by ego gratification. He opines further that clinicians should view work addiction as the end product of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and perfectionistic thinking. Diagnostic comorbidity, it seems, is the rule rather than the exception.
What does a mental health professional do to help a person overcome work addiction? The book offers many recommendations, starting with a "self-help" plan that strategically whittles away worktime in favor of substitute activities. The objective is not to eliminate the many joys that work brings but to achieve balance with other life pursuits. Accordingly, Robinson suggests strategies such as scheduling "time cushions" around appointments, limiting work hours, avoiding work "binges," practicing spontaneity instead of advanced planning, and managing time more efficiently. He also devotes many pages to cognitive-change methods for countering self-defeating beliefs and misattributions. In essence, his treatment philosophy is a reasonable combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and behavioral activation mixed with a strong dose of commonsense.
Chained to the Desk is a welcome addition to the professional and self-help literature. Not many books have tackled the problem of work addiction, so the material is fresh, as seen through the eyes of a seasoned clinician. Just about any mental health professional working with people who have obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorders would do well to read the book as a way to improve their skills and discover new therapeutic techniques. A non-professional reading the book may be challenged by some of the more didactic sections but on whole, will profit by its contents.
© 2008 James K. Luiselli
James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., ABPP, BCBA is a psychologist affiliated with May Institute and a private-practice clinician. Among his publications are 6 books and over 200 journal articles. He reviews books for The New England Psychologist.