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article imageAddiction to Work Can Hurt When You're Unemployed.

By Joan Firstenberg     Feb 10, 2009 in Business
Ever wonder what happens to all those high-powered, high-flying executives when they get let go? Some of them, who have been "addicted to work" and defined themselves by it, may have to struggle to come out of it and start anew.
There are millions of people who are now collecting unemployment, who used to define themselves by the jobs they held. It's a rough emotional spot for them, since they need a new reason for being who they are.
The Wall Street Journal reports that
"the deepening recession is exacting punishment for a psychological vice that masquerades as virtue for many working people: the unmitigated identification of self with occupation, accomplishment and professional status."
Robert Leahy, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York sums it up...
"It's like having your entire investment in one stock, and that stock is your job. You're going to be extremely anxious about losing that job, and depressed if you do."
The Journal says the problem of over-identification with work is now part of an epidemic of recession related anxiety and depression problems that mental health professionals are seeing. They're also seeing many patients who can't come to terms with losing their house, or sinking too deeply into debt. But the identity dilemma, experts say, is within the individual's power to address. One approach can be mental exercises, alterations in one's lifestyle and a new set of friends.
Professional success, no matter what the industry, often feels like a drug. There is a feeling of ecstasy that can seem like it belongs to you when you are very successful at a job. But the catch is that recapturing that feeling often means getting more and bigger things; hence the drive for every-larger bonuses and conquests. David Burns, a Stanford University psychiatrist and pioneer of cognitive behavioral therapy, writes in his 1980 book "Feeling Good."
"With riches, success and fame ... you find that greater and greater doses of your 'upper' are needed to become 'high."
One exercise recommended for people caught in "addiction to success" is to try to remember earlier times when you were not in that success driven job, that you were happy. Dr. Leahy says,
"I've published a lot of books, but when I look back, I'm no happier than in graduate school sleeping on a mattress on the floor."
Work colleagues who wind up reinforcing the achievement cycle may not be the best people to stay in touch with if you have lost your job. A big fear for people who hold respected positions is the potential loss of public esteem. Therapists say the high achiever often holds self-defeating double standards, feeling sympathetic toward the unemployed while assuming that unemployment would bring him only shame.
To disassociate identity from professional status, therapists recommend taking pride in characteristics of individuals that can't be stripped away -- virtue, integrity, honesty, generosity. They also recommend investing more time and pride in relationships with family, friends and community.
For 18 years, Steve Roman was the public-relations director of the largest bank in Arizona. In 2000 he was forced to accept a buyout from the bank, and it was such big news it made all the local papers. He says
"That separation was unsettling. Everybody knew me as Steven Roman of Bank One."
But he has a new career now, at a Phoenix communications firm. He is less visible in it, but he finds it more gratifying because he is its founder and owner. But he says the most gratifying thing for him is the status his two children have now granted him.
"I love saying, 'I'm Kyle Roman's dad. I'm Katie Roman's dad.' "
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