Workaholism: are you addicted?

Sep 10, 2020

5 mins

Workaholism: are you addicted?
Emma Cullinan

Psychotherapist and writer

In 1968, US psychologist Wayne Oates coined a new word, “workaholic”, to describe those who worked more than 50 hours a week. These sorts of hours have become the norm for many, so now workaholism often refers to those who spend more time and energy on work than is necessary, struggle to detach outside work hours and suffer physically and mentally as a result. If this sounds like you, what should you do about it?

Jane Allen, an accountant, is first in the office and last out the door. Her work is all-consuming: it’s on her mind 24/7. I just can’t switch off: I get into the office early, stay late and then go home and invariably cry to my husband and lie awake for much of the night going over all the figures,” said Allen, who recognizes her obsession with work.

Workaholism can take its toll mentally and physically, according to research published in the Harvard Business Review. “Unlike people who merely work long hours, workaholics struggle to psychologically detach from work. And we know that ongoing rumination often goes together with stress, anxiety, depression and sleep problems, and it impedes recovery from work,” wrote Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P. Rothbard, who led the research.

This resonates with Allen, who has become so fixated on details and not making mistakes, that she spends hours in the office and, once home, is constantly going over figures. “I am terrified I will get calculations wrong,” she said. “The result would be catastrophic. I read about accountants being struck off for making mistakes. Rationally I know that this would probably only happen if you had malicious intent but I obsess about every detail. When work goes well, I get such a high and forget all the weeks of misery, but then I go back to feeling so heavy and low.”

Like any addiction, workaholism brings short-term highs or hits—the moments when work goes well or you get praise—but these are countered by longer-term lows, as expressed by Allen, and withdrawal symptoms if the work is taken away.

In their research, ten Brummelhuis and Rothbard found that stress levels in workaholics are … often chronic, which leads to ongoing wear and tear on the body.” This is something that Allen began to experience when she went to her GP with dizzy spells that were diagnosed as stress.

Are you addicted to work?

Clinical psychologist Cecilie Schou Andreassen and fellow researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway created the Bergen Work Addiction Scale to identify who may be affected. With scores of 1 (never) to 5 (always), the test wants to know if:

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • You spend much more time working than initially intended.
  • You work to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, or depression.
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work.
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

You are likely to be a workaholic if you score 4 (often) or 5 (always) on four or more criteria.

Who is likely to be affected?

Internal and external factors cause people to become workaholics. Jane fits the profile of a perfectionist or someone who fears failure while others who can be susceptible include those who seek approval from others. External drivers can be pushy management, a glorification of hard workers, fear in a zero-hours contract world, and continuous growth expected by shareholders. Naturally, today’s always-on society—with emails and texts sent at all hours—does not help.

Research co-led by Schou Andreassen also found that workaholics had more psychiatric conditions than non-workaholics:

  • 32.7% met ADHD criteria (12.7% among non-workaholics).
  • 25.6% OCD criteria (8.7% among non-workaholics).
  • 33.8% met anxiety criteria (11.9% among non-workaholics).
  • 8.9% met depression criteria (2.6% among non-workaholics).

“Taking work to the extreme may be a sign of deeper psychological or emotional issues. Whether this reflects … disorders leading to workaholism or, conversely, workaholism causing such disorders, remain uncertain,” said Schou Andreassen.

Workaholism certainly impacts our physical and mental health. It is linked to poor sleep, anxiety, depression, burnout, backache, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular issues.

Is there a cure?

As with most mental (and medical) conditions, you can treat the symptoms, but it is also a good idea to delve into the cause.

Practical solutions

On a practical level, begin by setting time limits on work, using your holiday allowance, and trying to limit the amount of work-related texts and emails you send outside work hours.

You can also do something totally different in your downtime, such as painting or pottery classes, or a form of exercise, to give your head and body a break via a new experience and tap into your creativity.

Examine the causes

In recognizing and/or treating workaholism as an addiction, look at your need to get a hit from work. Do you have mood dips that are temporarily relieved by burying yourself in work?

Ask yourself what you may be running away from by getting so involved in this way. Does your office obsession mean that you don’t have to face relationship issues or an unresolved, unhappy past?

Look at where your need for praise might come from. We all naturally want approval from our fellow beings, but relying on praise from others for our sense of worth is exhausting. You will have to contort yourself to try to please very different types of people. You need to focus on your own needs while still carrying out your job properly. No one will benefit if you are stressed and exhausted.

Examine whether you have a need for perfectionism or fear of failure: perhaps you worry that things will become catastrophic and chaotic if you are not controlling them all the time. Conversely, the very act of trying to keep everything perfect leads to internal, and eventually external, chaos because it is impossible, so you create the very thing that you are trying to avoid.

Hannah Best, in her 40s, can see many of these traits in her partner Josh Donnelly, who would never admit he is a workaholic. “When I first got together with him I realized that I would spend a lot of time alone because he is hunched over his laptop seven days a week and does nothing else, except eat out once in a while,” she said. “When I questioned it, he swore he had a lot of work, but his university friend told me recently that it was not about work volume. He said Josh drank his way through his 20s and then got a scare when his father died by suicide [which I knew] and, at the same time, his employers said he would never become a professor if he carried on slacking.”

Donnelly fits all of the above: he is in denial, he has a fear of failure and not being recognized professionally, he needs praise and, following his family tragedy, he escaped through his work. Workaholism addresses his issues in some ways, but it makes his own life small and affects his relationships.

Come back to you

Donnelly shows how easy it can be to slip into workaholism as a way to try and solve life issues. You need to come back to yourself, to believe that you are worthy just as you are and that the world will be okay if you don’t work yourself to the level of self-harm. Turn your focus inwards: cherish you and don’t literally lose who you are at work. A healthier you—both physically and mentally—will work better, which will benefit both you and your company.

*-Names have been changed

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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