Workaholism: Could You Be Addicted to Work?

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As we are all affected by the shifting economy, many of us are working harder than ever before and feeling overworked as a result. Yet for some, the urge to work more and more goes deeper than simply needing to pay the bills—some are addicted to work.

Work addiction, or workaholism, was first used to describe an uncontrollable need to work constantly. A workaholic is someone who suffers from this condition.

Although a widely recognized and accepted concept in popular culture, and despite the existence of forty years of literature on the subject, work addiction is not a formally recognized medical condition or mental disorder in that it does not appear in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the DSM-V.

One of the reasons for this lack of recognition of work addiction is that work—even excessive work—is typically thought of as a positive trait rather than a problem. Overwork is rewarded, both financially and culturally, and may lead to the worker being seen in a more positive light in different ways. However, work addiction can be a very real problem and can interfere with functioning and relationships, in similar ways to other addictions.

The original reason the term "workaholic" was coined was to demonstrate the parallel between work addiction and alcoholism, and this is probably more accurate than the common perception that someone who works excessively is a responsible and ethical person.

Problems Associated With Work Addiction

Although excessive work is often well regarded and even rewarded, there are problems associated with work addiction.

As with other addictions, work addiction is driven by compulsion, rather than by a healthy sense of fulfillment that is common among people who simply put a lot of effort and dedication into their job, or people who are deeply committed to their work as a vocation.

In fact, people who fall prey to work addiction may be quite unhappy and distressed about work, they may be overly concerned about work, they may feel out of control of their desire to work, and they may spend so much time, energy, and effort on work that it impairs non-work relationships and activities outside of work.

Signs and Symptoms of Work Addiction

Despite the difficulties in precisely defining work addiction, several signs of workaholism have been identified. They include:

  • Increased busyness without an increase in productivity
  • Obsessively thinking about how you can free up more time for work
  • Spending more time working than intended
  • Excessive use of work to maintain one's self worth
  • Working to reduce feelings of guilt, depression, anxiety, or hopelessness
  • Ignoring suggestions or requests from others to cut down on work
  • Relationship problems resulting from overwork or preoccupation with work
  • Health problems resulting from work-related stress and/or overwork
  • Using work as a way of coping with, escaping, or numbing feelings
  • Developing tolerance to work, so needing to work more to get the same effects
  • Becoming stressed if prevented from working or experiencing withdrawal if you are not working
  • Relapsing to overwork when you try and cut down or stop

These signs and symptoms of work addiction share many characteristics with other addictions, particularly other behavioral addictions, in which the commitment to the activity or behavior becomes increasingly more important, and overshadows other important areas of life and relationships.

What If I Might Be Addicted to Work?

If you think you may be addicted to work, try taking a break and see how you feel. If you are unable to switch off from thinking about work, and if you sense you are escaping into work to avoid other responsibilities or uncomfortable feelings, you may benefit from treatment from a mental health professional.

Although you are unlikely to find a work addiction treatment program, many of the approaches used to treat other addictions can be used to help control a range of addictive behaviors.

Sources:

Andreassen, CS., Griffiths, MD., Hetland, J., and Pallesen, S. Development of a work addiction scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 53:265-272. 2012.

Andreassen, C., Ursin, H., Eriksen, H. The relationship between strong motivation to work, "workaholism," and health. Psychology and Health 22:615-629. 2007.

Bakker, A., Demerouti, E., and Burke, R. Workaholism and relationship quality: A spillover-crossover perspective. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 14:23-33. 2009.

Shifron, R. & Reysen, R. Workaholism: Addiction to work. Journal of Individual Psychology 67:136-146. 2011.

Wojdylo, K., Baumann, N., Buczny, J., Owens, G., Kuhl, J. Work craving: A conceptualization and measurement. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 35:547-568. 2013.

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