Are you a workaholic?
I confess right up front to having been one at times. There, I’ve said it. Work addiction, also called workaholism, is the inability to curb a compulsive need to achieve status and success or to escape emotional stress. As with all addictions, a work addiction provides a “high” from working, which leads people to keep repeating the behavior that gives them this high. Driven by job success, it’s also common in perfectionists.Being a workaholic is undoubtedly one of the most socially accepted addictions. Some people go so far as to brag about the number of hours they work without considering the toll it takes on their physical and mental health. Insomnia, a weakened immune system, depression, long-term fatigue and substance abuse are just a few of the problems workaholics experience. The most significant issues are found among employees who have little say or control over their work but face high job demand. So, why do we glamorize this obsession with working far more than is good for us? I’ve heard people refer to themselves as part of the “sleepless elite,” as if this level of workaholism is some sort of badge of honor? We can see evidence of this trend all around us, from productivity trackers to the increased use of prescription amphetamines.
How do we define workaholism? While definitions vary, the most common says that workaholics are people who work at least seven additional hours per week than their colleagues. This could be for several reasons, including pressure from a supervisor, relationship problems or financial instability. The main factor is that workaholics put in more work than their employers require or expect. Other criteria include fearing failure at work, being obsessed with success at work, sacrificing sleep to complete projects, and avoiding personal crises such as financial depression, guilt, death, divorce or shame. Productivity has been a buzzword for many years, but what happens when this is taken to the extreme?
Dr. Sandra Chapman, chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, says the brain can become addicted to productivity in the same way it does to other types of addiction, such as gambling, drugs or eating. “A person might crave the recognition their work gives them or the salary increases they get,” says Chapman. “The problem is that just like all addictions, over time, a person needs more and more to be satisfied and then it starts to work against you. Withdrawal symptoms include increased anxiety, depression and fear.” The fact that society tends to see workaholic behavior in a positive light makes it more difficult to change. “It’s seen as a good thing: the more you work, the better,” says Chapman. “Many people don’t realize the harm it causes until a divorce occurs and a family is broken apart, or the toll it takes on mental health.” Dr. Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioral addiction at Nottingham Trent University, says a work addiction is a mixed-blessing addiction. “A workaholic might be earning a lot of money, just as an exercise addict is very fit. But the thing about any addiction is that in the long run, the detrimental effects outweigh any short-term benefits,” according to Dr. Griffiths.
Active high-strain jobs
Morteza Charkhabi, associate professor at the Institute of Education at the HSE University in France, believes that while high-demanding jobs are the most strongly associated with work addiction risk, people working in active, high-strain jobs run a greater risk of job addiction than those working in other job categories. “We found that job demands could be the most important factor that can develop work addiction risk,” Charkhabi pointed out. “So, this factor should be controlled or should be investigated by the organization’s manager, for example, HR staff, psychologists. Also, another conclusion could be the job climate like job demands of each job category can influence the rate of work addiction risk. Thus, in this study, we actually focused on external factors like job demands, not internal factors like personal characteristics. Interestingly, women had almost twice the work addiction risk than men.”
It’s possible for people working in passive jobs to find satisfaction if they reach their goals. Moreover, people working in low strain, creative or imaginative jobs (researchers, for example) aren’t likely to develop mental health problems. People working in highly skilled professions, such as company directors – so-called active jobs that include many responsibilities – don’t usually develop mental health issues despite high demands because they have high levels of decision making for solving problems. Employees working in the tense group where demand is high, but control is low are at the highest risk for stress-related disorders. Examples of these include healthcare workers from emergency rooms and intensive care units, who cannot control the enormous workload or flux. The most common approach for treating work addiction typically involves outpatient treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or Motivational Interviewing (MI). Don’t let this happen to you. Lighten up, step back from your desk and enjoy life. As the saying goes, “no one on their deathbed ever said they wished they had spent more time at the office.”