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Why “Work Hard, Play Hard” Is a Bad Mantra that Can Lead to Addiction

“Work hard, play hard” — somewhere along the line that phrase became a motto which many have worn as a badge of honor. However, burning the candle at both ends often leads to addiction and going down in a ball of flames.

In this leaner economy, employers push employees further, harder. In an increasingly competitive world, parents, coaches and athletes themselves push to be faster, stronger and better, from high school sports all the way up to the professional level. All of us are expected to do more with less, from single parents to working moms and dads trying to put three kids through college at once. When our lives get out of balance, we may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. It can launch a cycle of feeling like a failure that perpetuates an addiction. Many people end up addicted because they have lost balance in their lives.


People with co-occurring mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder, are especially vulnerable. John De Graaf is the author of the book Affluenza and is the president and co-founder of Take Back Your Time, an organization that describes itself as “challenging time poverty and overwork in the US and Canada.”

De Graaf is a popular speaker at colleges and universities around the country, espousing simple advice: Don’t burn out. It’s bad for business, bad for your health and bad for the economy.

These days many startups wooing the best and brightest millennials offer open bars at work on Fridays. The idea is to immerse yourself in the culture of work, to work and play together with your team, and in the end to be more productive. Some companies even jet their entire staffs to exotic locales to work outside of the constraints of the office. But don’t kid yourself – it’s still work.

“Working hard is OK for short stretches, but we seem to have equated working hard with working long, and those are not the same thing,” De Graaf said in an interview with Foundations Recovery Network. “Playing hard is useful for short periods, when people only have a short period of time for leisure, maybe that’s what they end up having to do.”

Avoiding “Hurry Sickness” and ‘Time Urgency”

Whether it’s a mid-level corporate manager who feels overwhelmed by her workload, a stay-at-home parent shuffling around multiple children while trying to maintain a large household, or an artist feeling pressure to push harder, revise and redo, De Graaf says you know you’re in trouble and need a break when you begin developing “hurry sickness.”

“When you find yourself yelling at other people a lot, finding yourself suffering from time urgency, this sense that you are always in a hurry, everybody is in your way, it becomes a situation where you feel that other people are obstacles to your being able to do things as fast as possible,” De Graaf explained.

De Graaf said he once met the famed Dr. Meyer Friedman, a cardiologist who coined the term “Type A.”

“He told me ‘Type A’ is characterized by two phenomena… and you don’t always have both,” De Graaf recalled. “The first one is ‘time urgency,’ always in a hurry and always over-scheduled, and he said I have that.”

If you can address “time urgency” and learn to take breaks and vacations, you can prevent yourself from falling into a second category, called “free floating hostility,” De Graaf said. “That’s when everybody else becomes your enemy because they’re in your way, they’re slowing you down, they’re driving on the road you’re driving on.”

In a piece that appeared in Live Science 1, Dr. Sergi Ferre, a scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said more research is needed on how personality traits impact the risk of substance abuse disorder. But he said people who respond poorly to stressors and fall into the “negative emotionality/neuroticism” personality category have been known to be at higher risk. “A person that is very sensitive to punishment finds, in drugs, something that allows them to escape,” Ferre said in the article.

Even Burnt Out Doctors Are Prone to Drug Addiction

Overwork leads to what commonly is known as “burnout.” In a paper published in JAMA on mid-career burnout among physicians, the authors described the symptoms of burnout as “emotional exhaustion, cynicism and perceived clinical ineffectiveness… Burnout has been associated with impaired job performance and poor health, including headaches, sleep disturbances, irritability, marital difficulties, fatigue, hypertension, anxiety, depression, myocardial infarction, and may contribute to alcoholism and drug addiction.” 2

De Graaf said it makes sense that burnout from overwork can lead to drug and alcohol abuse. “What we’re faced with is a situation where people are expected to put in longer and longer hours directly on the job, and also when they’re not at work. In certain other countries, spa treatment is what a lot of people do, and it’s paid for by national health insurance. They go to spas and relax whether it’s substance abuse or just suffering from stress.”

“Burnout has been associated with impaired job performance and poor health, including headaches, sleep disturbances, irritability, marital difficulties, fatigue, hypertension, anxiety, depression, myocardial infarction, and may contribute to alcoholism and drug addiction.”

Of course, lasting recovery from alcohol and drug addiction needs to go beyond detox at a spa. For some, it could mean seeking treatment in the serene, retreat setting of a place like Skywood Recovery.

“For most people nature is a very calming thing, especially if you slow down to its pace and be aware,” De Graaf explained. “It’s possible to be out in nature and not even be connected at all if you’re wired to a device the whole time. But if you’re listening to the rhythms and sounds of the forest and listening to the birds and such, it’s all very calming, and the beauty is a positive.”

In the JAMA article about physician burnout, the authors report, “Physicians must be guided from the earliest years of training to evaluate methods of personal renewal, emotional self-awareness, connection with social support systems, and a sense of mastery and meaning in their work.”

Those are the skills that everyone who seeks treatment at Skywood are taught.

“Maintaining these values is the work of a lifetime,” the JAMA article concludes. “It is not incidental to medicine but is at the core of the deepest values of the profession to first, do no harm. Doing no harm begins with oneself.”


1. Rettner, R. (2014, April 15.) How personality increases risk of drug abuse. Live Science. Retrieved March 31, 2015, from
2. Spickard, A. et al. (2002). JAMA. 288 (12):1447-1450 Mid-career burnout in generalist and specialist positions. Retrieved March 31, 2016, from

Written By David Heitz