Everyone loves a hard worker.
In fact, pulling long hours on the job and earning big is considered by many to be the modern mark of success. Being labelled a workaholic is, as often as not, seen as a badge of honour.
But for some, the obsessive need to work comes at the expense of everything else. Health, relationships and even work quality can suffer. It's a high price to pay.
Workaholics are less productive than colleagues with a healthier attitude and approach to work
Whatever the case, a compulsion to work has been leading people to therapists and self-help groups for years. It can even be deadly. Earlier this month, a Japanese government study found one fifth of the Japanese workforce is at risk of death from overwork.
Overwork isn’t just a problem in Japan. Workaholics Anonymous, a 12-step programme which models itself on Alcoholics Anonymous, held its first international conference in the UK in June, with attendees hailing from across the globe.
There has been little research into why workaholism develops. But that’s changing – in recent years, the phenomenon has begun to get more attention and is being treated as more than just a buzzword.
Workaholism is not recognised as a medical condition by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is considered the gold standard in diagnosing mental disorders.
Another large-scale study linked workaholic tendencies to other psychiatric issues, like obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression
But even without a precise definition, its impact is being linked to health, workplace and mental issues, and researchers are taking note. A recent meta-analysis – a quantitative summary of the existing research into workaholism – by the University of Georgia showed, among other things, that workaholics are less productive than colleagues with a healthier attitude and approach to work.
Another large-scale study, published in May by the University of Bergen in Norway, linked workaholic tendencies to other psychiatric issues, like obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression.
Not your best work
But when does hard work turn negative? What might lead someone to believe they are a 'work addict'? Well, workaholism is a compulsion – an obsessive and out-of-control urge to work, or think about it, says Bryan Robinson, a psychotherapist based in North Carolina who conducted early research into the effects of work addiction and wrote Chained to the Desk, a guidebook for workaholics.
"Workaholism is not defined by hours. It's defined by what's going on inside of us,” he says.
“A workaholic is someone who's on the ski slopes dreaming about being back at work. A healthy worker is at work, dreaming about being on the ski slopes.”
Robinson, who has counselled people who have divorced, been fired or driven to health crises as a result of chronic overwork, recalls one client who would tell her husband she was at the gym, but instead would go to work before changing into workout clothes and dousing herself in water to make it look like she'd been sweating.
Sound like someone you know?
But workaholics are not necessarily producing the best work or are any more engaged at the office than their colleagues, the University of Georgia meta-analysis found.
Malissa A Clark, an assistant professor of industrial and organisational psychology at the University of Georgia, led the study. She says workaholics reported greater job stress, lower job satisfaction, lower life satisfaction and more burnout.
The Bergen Work Addiction Scale uses seven basic criteria to identify work addiction, scored as follows: (1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Always. If you score “often” or “always” on at least four of the seven criteria, you may be a workaholic.
- You think of how you can free up more time to work.
- You spend much more time working than 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 deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health
They also reported greater work-life conflict, lower physical and mental health and detrimental outcomes for family, such as marital problems.
“There's not a lot of positive outcomes,” she adds, despite the concept of workaholism often being linked with traits like being driven, competitive, ambitious and productive.
Help in high water
Think you might have a problem? There are a couple of self-assessments you can take.
Norwegian researchers have created the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, where you can gauge your behavior, feelings and attitude towards work. Workaholics Anonymous also has an online questionnaire that can help you determine if you might need to seek help.
The first step, experts say, is to admit you have a problem.
For Robinson, who calls himself a recovering workaholic, treatment involves mindfulness, therapy, behavioural changes and uncovering the underlying issues. “There are root causes to it. Sometimes it's self-esteem, sometimes it's a way to modulate anxiety,” he says.
The drug for workaholics is adrenaline
For Bob, 61, of California, admitting he had a problem came when his wife told him she'd had enough of waking up the middle of the night and discovering him absent, still at the office. Bob – who preferred to use only his first name to preserve the anonymity of the Workaholics Anonymous programme – is now an outreach officer for Workaholics Anonymous, a volunteer position.
“The drug for workaholics is adrenaline,” he says. “Stress, pressure, crisis, deadlines, those all allow the ability get adrenalised and the ability to operate at a frantic pace.”
Bob had his first jobs at five years old – helping his brother deliver newspapers, recycling cans and bottles, mowing lawns and shovelling snow. He became a successful businessman, but ultimately his health suffered, and if he'd not sought help, his family-life would have too, he said. His wife had had enough.
“Her no longer being willing to live like that is what gave me the willingness to finally pursue this programme with some commitment and conviction,” Bob says.
Work, like food, is not something you can just give up cold turkey
But work, like food, is not something you can just give up cold turkey. So how can you control your impulse to work incessantly? “It's having a plan and following a plan, versus, compulsively diving in to whatever pops up,” says Bob. That means scheduling work hours, focusing on one thing at time, and if something unexpected arises, rather than chaotically trying to cram everything in and multi-tasking, going back to your list and reprioritising.
Other treatment options include finding a therapist who is versed in this area. Or, you can attend outpatient workshops and programmes. And, now inpatient residential programmes, such as that offered by The Bridge To Recovery, located in Ohio in the US, are offering help for workaholics alongside other treatments for obsessive or compulsive behaviours, anxiety and depression.
But a big factor in the lack of available treatment, says Clark, is lack of research. “There's not a lot of research on how it develops and there's almost no research on the relationship between workaholism and clinical disorders.” The Norwegian study is one of the first.
More research is needed, she says, “so it becomes more mainstream rather than this fringe topic buzzword that people throw out there. It does have legitimate detrimental outcomes to people's lives and people's well-being.”
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