In the literal sense of the word, an “Arbeitstier” is a work animal, as in a beast of burden on a pre-mechanized farm. The horse at the center of the bestselling 1877 novel “Black Beauty” by English author Alice Sewell, for instance, was an “Arbeitstier” – one, moreover, in need of saving from brutal humans driving an innocent, elegant animal to the limits of its physical capacities.
This expression – like so many German compound nouns – is actually composed of two words: “Arbeit” (work) and “Tier” (animal).
In the modern sense of the word, however, a person who works very hard is referred to as an “Arbeitstier”, a badge of honor for many individuals in a society that prides itself on efficiency and what some Germans refer to as a strong work ethic or “Prussian sense of duty” (though one would be hard-pressed to find a Bavarian using the latter expression).
So an “Arbeitstier” is, essentially, a very hard and focused worker, but not necessarily a “workaholic”, an expression which has many negative connotations in modern western societies.
In Germany the expression “Arbeitstier” is, however, generally used in a more positive sense.