Work Life Balance Agencies Mental Health Awareness Week

I was addicted to work – here’s how to break the cycle

By Luke Barnes, President, EMEA



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

Find out more

June 20, 2023 | 8 min read

We might brush off ‘workaholism’ as a harmless foible or a praiseworthy dedication to the grind, but for many, work addiction is a cause of suffering. Influencer’s Luke Barnes talks us through his own struggles.

The spines of countless books

Work addiction: a real problem in the marketing industry / Credit: Influencer

I find a lot of things in life uncomfortable. All emotions (good and bad) are overwhelming, I find ‘stillness’ excruciating, and my brain often feels like it’s running at 120mph but stuck in first gear.

People would say I’m a high achiever. I got the best grades at my school and the highest marks in my degree class (while starting my own business), and I landed a C-suite role at a prominent global media company at the age of 32. People probably don’t know that all of that success was driven by a fear of almost everything else.

I used work to escape reality, avoid my emotions, and avoid connecting with other humans. I rarely did anything that might bring me joy. Compulsively dedicating all my energy toward work allowed me to create a different reality, one which wasn’t painful.

But in the background I was getting further and further away from myself, pushing emotions down so deep that I didn’t even feel them, and eschewing any human connection that wasn’t transactional. I would soon learn that doing this unchecked for a prolonged period of time will come back to bite you.

Ambition v addiction

If you want to excel in your career, be a trailblazer, or even just experience a solid level of job satisfaction, you do need to ‘work hard’, but does working really hard make you a ‘workaholic’?

The term often gets thrown around in jest, as do other addiction labels (you might jokingly call yourself an alcoholic just because you go to the pub every Friday night with your mates). But just because you do something regularly, doesn’t mean you have a problem.

The problem comes when you do that thing to change the way that you feel so regularly that you become powerless against it. When doing it becomes a compulsion such that if you didn’t do it you would simply not be able to cope. So am I a workaholic? By that definition, yes.

For me, this behavior resulted in a cycle of anxiety, depression, isolation and other undesirable things. I’m glad to say that I have had almost a whole year of what I would call ‘good’ mental health, after years of it being pretty poor.

What lies beneath the mask

First, I needed to acknowledge I had a problem, believe I could do something about it, and be willing to try. I had to hit rock bottom where my depression symptoms were so overpowering that I had no choice but to ask for help. This led me to seek psychiatric help and be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), which seemed like the epiphany I was waiting for as it explained some of the things I was experiencing. I decided to go down the medication route initially, which turned out not to be right for me, but it gave me the confidence that maybe a process of trial and error would help me if I stuck at it.

Second, I realized that I had to find the root cause of my discomfort, and what was driving my compulsive overworking. What I call ‘head’ therapy never really worked. My rational brain was too critical, overanalyzing anything my therapists said. The turning point was when I started looking to my body to unearth past trauma and trying to heal it. This allowed me to connect with who I really was underneath the mask I had been wearing for so long and why I find so many things uncomfortable or overwhelming.

In that process of discovery, I realized that I had really low self-esteem. I was an expert at feigning confidence in my professional persona, but underneath I was often paralyzed by fear of inadequacy and feeling that I wasn’t worthy of having my needs met.

So, third, I had to start working on building my self-esteem. I have so many examples of how I have tried to do that, but one of my highlights is that 2 years ago I went for my first ever run, and this year I ran my first marathon. It made me feel really good about myself!

Suggested newsletters for you

Daily Briefing


Catch up on the most important stories of the day, curated by our editorial team.

Ads of the Week


See the best ads of the last week - all in one place.

The Drum Insider

Once a month

Learn how to pitch to our editors and get published on The Drum.

Breaking free from a 9-to-5 and 5-to-9

My story isn’t one of trying to find ‘work-life balance’ or becoming more efficient so that I don’t work more than I need to. My overworking was much more insidious than that, and could never have been remedied by just making sure I closed my laptop at 5 pm.

I now have a much healthier relationship with work. While I still have to wear a mask fairly regularly, I take it off when I’m comfortable doing so. My tendencies to slip into compulsive behaviors to escape reality will never go away, but acceptance that they exist and a willingness to work to keep them in check are the foundations of making sure they don’t take control.

As a leader, you may spot signs that someone is compulsively overworking. Maybe they’re always the last one to leave the office. You might also notice that they never talk about anything other than work, they never seem to share about any fun they had at the weekend, or they seem really disinterested in anything other than smashing their to-do list. If you spot these signs, the best thing you can do is try to share experiences that they might identify with that may give them hope that they can break the cycle.

If you find yourself identifying with anything I’ve written, I hope reading it will help you on your journey. If you’re worried that someone you know might be using work compulsively to mask something underneath, then please share this article with them.

Work Life Balance Agencies Mental Health Awareness Week

Content by The Drum Network member:


We are the originators of influencer marketing.

Influencer is an agency built at the intersection of creativity, data, and technology with a unique ‘people...

Find out more

More from Work Life Balance

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +