Work Addiction 101

Workaholics have a compulsive need to overwork and rarely feel satisfied or relaxed unless they’re doing something related to their job. Simply put, they immerse themselves in work to reduce anxiety and a fear of failure. This is not the same as  the person who puts in extraordinary effort over a limited period of time to complete a project, or someone with great talent, such as a musician, who practices many hours to achieve proficiency. The fundamental difference is the compulsive urge to overwork versus a healthy desire to work.

You should know:

  • Work addiction is associated with negative consequences, including stress-related physical and psychological problems and conflicts with family members.
  • Workaholics are more likely than those who don’t work compulsively to suffer from too little or poor sleep; fatigue at work; psychosomatic symptoms; low job satisfaction; low satisfaction with life in general; low work performance (working harder, but less effectively) and poor physical health. They appear to be more likely to suffer from depression and from disabling back pain, too, as well as to miss work due to illness.
  • Some studies have found that work addicts are actually less productive than those who work a normal amount, although other research disputes this. Nevertheless, researchers have found that workaholic behavior is not associated with increases in salary.
  • The term “workaholism” was coined in 1964 by Richard Evans, PhD, a consultant to an oil company, who used the word in a print interview; he likened it to other forms of addiction, such as alcoholism. The term gained wider traction in 1971 with the publication of Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction, by Wayne Oates, a religion professor.
  • Among those who do see workaholism as a true addiction, it’s considered to be a self-nurturing type, similar to food or shopping addictions, as opposed to a hedonistic addiction, such as drug, sex or gambling addictions.
  • How common is addiction to work? There’s a wide range of estimates, partly due to a lack of agreement on how to define and measure this disorder. In a 2011 systematic review of the scientific literature, researchers at the University of Southern California and Nottingham Trent University, in the U.K., estimated the overall prevalence of workaholism among U.S. workers to be roughly 10%. They also concluded, based on a handful of studies, that about 20% of workaholics have co-occurring behavioral addictions, such as sex addiction. Another literature review estimated the prevalence at 8% to 17.5% among college-educated workers and, again, 10% overall.

Causes

Researchers don’t agree on what causes work addiction, but it’s most likely influenced by a number of factors, including:

Family upbringing: Parents and other family members may have modeled and emphasized excessive responsibility and over-achievement.

Social learning: If putting in too much labor into something was praised and reinforced at home, school and/or work, it’s more likely a child would learn to associate overwork with positive feedback.

Personality: Certain personality disorders, such as neuroticism or narcissism, or personality traits such as perfectionism or conscientiousness may predispose someone to workaholism, according to a 2014 systematic review in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

Biology: Some researchers suggest that workaholism is a type of addictive disorder, others that it is an obsessive-compulsive disorder or related to an innate personality trait, all of which have genetic or neurochemical influences. This suggests that, although workaholism is strongly influenced by upbringing and social learning, some people may be more wired for an addiction to work than others.

Culture: Most cultures value and encourage hard work, competence and financial success, and some workaholics may have absorbed that message to the extreme.

Symptoms

Because American culture tends to encourage and reward hard work, it’s not always easy to determine if someone is a workaholic or simply a hard worker responding to the needs of the job. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one has a work addiction, there are some scales and questionnaires designed to help. The Bergen Work Addiction Scale lists seven simple criteria for workaholism; you can respond to each (below) with “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” “often” or “always.” Checking “often” or “always” to four or more items suggests a risk of workaholism. The statements are:

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • You spend much more time working than you initially intended.
  • You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression.
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • You de-prioritize hobbies, leisure activities and exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Workaholics Anonymous lists signposts of workaholism as well as 20 symptoms:

  • Getting more excited about work than family or other activities
  • Being able to sometimes charge through work and other times not
  • Working on weekends, on vacation or while in bed
  • Preferring work over everything  else
  • Working more than 40 hours a week
  • Turning hobbies into money-making enterprises
  • Taking sole responsibility for work projects
  • Family and friends no longer expecting you to be on time
  • Taking on extra work, believing that no one else can or will do it
  • Underestimating how long a project will take, then having to rush to complete  it
  • Thinking it’s OK to work long hours if you love your work
  • Becoming impatient with those who have priorities other than work
  • Worrying that if you don’t work hard you’ll be a failure or get fired
  • Worrying constantly about the future, even when things are going well
  • Doing everything competitively, including recreational activities
  • Becoming irritated when others ask you to turn your attention from work
  • Working long hours at the expense of family or other relationships
  • Thinking about work when going to sleep or driving or when others are talking
  • Working or reading during meals
  • Believing that more income will solve other problems in life

Other questionnaires on workaholism include the Work Addiction Risk Test, the Workaholism Battery and the Dutch Work Addiction Scale.

Risk Factors

Researchers don’t know exactly why some people become addicted to work while others don’t, but there are certain factors that may increase your risk, including:

  • Your personality. Individuals who are compulsive by nature and/or set excessively high standards for themselves and worry a lot about making mistakes (including the feeling that nothing is ever good enough) are more likely to be workaholics.
  • Your job and education. Some studies, but not all, have found that work addiction occurs more often in college-educated employees and those at a management level. In addition, a 2012 study of 9,160 Dutch workers found that workaholism was more prevalent in certain fields, including agriculture, construction, commercial trade, communication and consulting.
  • Your age. Workaholism is more prevalent among people 18 to 45 than older adults, although researchers aren’t sure why this is the case.
  • Your family. Having a workaholic father increases the likelihood of developing workaholism, according to a 2012 study of adult children of workaholic parents.

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