Nearly everyone not only needs to work, most of us must put in many hours on the job every week. But some people, sometimes called “workaholics,” seem to be forever on the clock — a situation that’s probably never been easier to fall into in our always-connected world. A workaholic is someone who works compulsively and beyond reasonable expectations.
Workaholism is not listed as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the diagnostic handbook for mental health professionals, but the term has gained widespread use as shorthand for a condition characterized by the compulsive need to work and to stay busy, to the exclusion or detriment of relationships, social ties, exercise and other aspects of a healthy, balanced life. An addiction to work is also considered to be what clinicians call “a stable trait,” meaning that without help it doesn’t suddenly go away or change a lot over time.
Although the idea of “workaholism” has been around for more than half a century, researchers don’t agree on what causes it, how to treat it or even how to measure it. Some characterize it as a personality trait; others view it as an obsessive-compulsive disorder. A growing body of researchers, though, believes it is a type of addictive disorder.
Not everyone who works long hours is addicted to work, of course. If you or a loved one burn the midnight oil to achieve a temporary goal — like meeting an important deadline — or because of extreme financial need, this is overworking due to circumstances, not because of a compulsive need to overwork — a key difference.
Not unlike people suffering from a recognized addictive disorder such as alcoholism or compulsive gambling, those with an addiction to work often don’t accept or agree that they have a problem. And, of course, working hard is typically seen as a virtue, not a vice. Overcoming the workaholic’s notion that working to excess is a positive trait can be extremely difficult, and an intervention is sometimes necessary.