workaholism

The Hidden Link Between Workaholism and Mental Health


Do you prioritise work above everything else in your life? Have you ever worked to soothe feelings of guilt or anxiety? Do you ever work so hard that you neglect basic self-care such as getting enough sleep or exercise?

If that sounds like you, or someone you know, you’re not alone. It’s believed that around 10% of the population may be addicted to working. 

In this article, we’ll explore what that means, common signs to look out for and what the causes of it are. We’ll also look at the link between workaholism and mental health, the impact on relationships and what treatment options are available.  

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Key Takeaways:

  • The term workaholic was introduced in 1971 and defined as: “addiction to work, the compulsive and uncontrollable need to work incessantly”
  • While it isn’t recognised as a mental health illness, it’s estimated to affect around 10% of the population 
  • Signs of work addiction include working to soothe feelings of guilt or anxiety, working at the expense of hobbies and loved ones and working while neglecting your basic needs such as sleep or exercise
  • There is no one root cause of work addiction and it is likely caused by a variety of factors including personality, environmental and belief systems 
  • Research has found a link between being addicted to working and mental health conditions including anxiety, ADHD, OCD and depression
  • Workaholism can have a devastating impact on relationships and can eventually cause relationship breakdowns 
  • Treatment options include inpatient and outpatient programs with therapy such as CBT 

What Is a ‘Workaholic?’

The world is built on the concept of people working in order to pay for the costs associated with living, as well as to maintain a productive, forward-moving society. Many people enjoy their careers and find progressing through the ranks enriches their lives. However, there is a darker side to the world of work, which can wreak havoc on a person’s overall life quality. 

The phrase ‘workaholic‘ was first coined by a psychologist in 1971, in which it was defined as “addiction to work, the compulsive and uncontrollable need to work incessantly”

Ever since the term was first used, people have argued over the precise definition. The water is further muddied, as addiction to work or the term ‘workaholic’ isn’t recognised as a mental illness listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV). However, clinicians maintain that it is a very real phenomenon, and one that left untreated can have a devastating effect on a person’s life. 

While there is no set definition of workaholism, it’s broadly understood to refer to an individual who works compulsively, at the expense of other areas of their lives. This may look different for different job roles, and sectors and from individual to individual, however, it may include consistently working longer hours than they are contracted for, neglecting basic needs (such as sleep) in favour of work, and a preoccupation with work even when they aren’t working. 

Some research estimates that around 10% of the population may be workaholics. Other studies have found significantly higher prevalence rates. And research looking into specific sectors and roles has found that those factors can influence the prevalence of workaholism too. For example, one study found relatively high average scores on workaholism for workers in the agriculture, construction, communication, consultancy, and commerce/trade sectors, as well as amongst managers.

However, because it isn’t an officially recognised mental health disorder with clear criteria for diagnosis, there is little robust evidence on how many people are suffering from workaholism. 

Signs of Work Addiction

Because there is no agreed-upon definition of workaholism, it can be useful to examine the signs of workaholism to find out if you, or someone you know, maybe addicted to working. 

In the decades that followed the emergence of the term ‘workaholic’, researchers scrambled to develop a tool to effectively measure workaholism. One of the most widely used is The Workaholism Battery (WorkBAT), first developed by Spence and Robbins in 1992. It has since been used in 500+ studies, making it one of the most widely used measures so far. 

This measure lists 25 claims distributed along three subscales, work involvement (e.g.  “I spend my free time on projects and other activities”), drive (e.g. “I seem to have an inner compulsion to work hard”), and work enjoyment (e.g. “sometimes I enjoy work so much I have a hard time stopping”). 

Different versions of this measurement tool exist, along with several other new measures such as Work Addiction Risk Test (WART), the Dutch Work Addiction Scale (DUWAS) and the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS)

Using several of these models, we have included a list of statements below. If you find yourself agreeing with multiple statements, it could indicate you may be addicted to work. 

link between workaholism and mental health

Have You Ever?

  • Spent time thinking about how you could free up more time to work 
  • Worked in order to feel less guilt, depression or to soothe anxiety
  • Spent less time on hobbies or leisure activities to prioritise your job
  • Felt stress if you have been prohibited from working e.g. illness, poor internet connection etc. 
  • Worked so much that you have experienced negative health consequences 
  • Regularly worked more than your contracted hours 
  • Found it difficult to relax when you are not working 
  • Repeatedly ignored requests from family, friends or colleagues to stop working so much 
  • Neglected basic needs (e.g. sleep, exercise, adequate nutrition) in favour of work 

What Causes Work Addiction?

Like many complex conditions, there is rarely one trigger for workaholism, instead, it is caused and maintained by multiple factors. Research has examined some of the main theories as to what drives people in becoming addicted to working, these include: 

  • Competence: As human beings, we have a basic psychological need for competence and workaholism can happen when this need is taken too far. Research has found that a compulsive work drive is associated with unsatisfied needs. This can be caused by internal pressure, as well as external. For example, other research found external factors, such as acknowledgements from others or avoidance of criticism can reinforce workaholism. 
  • Personality: Some researchers believe that workaholism is a personality trait that some people are particularly prone to. Research has found that people with high scores on recognised traits such as neuroticism, conscientiousness, narcissism, and perfectionism do indeed relate to workaholism. 
  • Belief systems: A certain belief system can influence someone’s susceptibility to workaholism. Previous research has found that basic cognitions – such as assumptions or thoughts – do activate certain behaviours. So it would follow that somebody operating under the belief system that hard work will result in success and happiness would be more prone to becoming addicted to working hard. 
  • Environmental: The environment a person is brought up in will have an impact on their approach to work. One study found that students who scored high for workaholism rated their parents as more hard-working than their peers with lower scores on workaholism. 

Research examining the link between workaholism and mental health has found that having symptoms of an underlying psychiatric disorder is associated with workaholism. 

The research looked at data from over 16,000 working-aged people and surveyed them on their addiction to work and mental health status. Almost 8% of the people surveyed met the researchers’ criteria for workaholism, which they defined as: “Being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation, and to investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas”.

Of those addicted to working, almost 34% met the criteria for anxiety, 33% for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), over 25% for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and 9% for depression. 

The research found that workaholics scored higher for psychiatric symptoms, at a rate of between two and four times higher, than those that were not addicted to work. It’s not yet known whether this research means that workaholism can cause mental health disorders, or whether mental health disorders can result in workaholism. 

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ADHD and Work Addiction

The aforementioned research found that 33% of survey respondents who met the criteria for workaholism also had ADHD. But what is the link? The researchers had a few theories as to why someone with ADHD would be more prone to becoming addicted to working. 

  1. Overcompensating: ADHD is often characterised by inattentiveness, lack of focus, impulsivity or excessive physical activity. For this reason, people with ADHD may compensate for this by working harder and longer to meet the expectations held by their employers. This means they may spend longer than the typical working day to accomplish what is done by their peers within normal working hours. 
  2. Environmental: The noise associated with specific workplaces might prove too distracting for people with ADHD, who might work better after other people have left or working in the solitude of home. 
  3. Perfectionism: Having ADHD may cause a person to become overly concerned with errors, which can lead to procrastination and work binges. 
  4. Hyper-Focus: While ADHD is associated with a lack of focus, some individuals can ‘hyper-focus’ once they find something interesting. When this happens, they find it difficult to stop what they are engaged with. 
  5. Impulsivity: People with ADHD can be more impulsive, which could lead to them saying ‘yes’ to work tasks and projects and accidentally taking on more work than they can fit into their schedule. 
  6. Stress Relief: People with ADHD can struggle to relax, and in some cases, work may alleviate the stress associated with restlessness. 

The Impact of Workaholism on Relationships

Research has found that being addicted to working can have a negative influence on all manner of things including your health, leisure time and even your relationships.

Further studies have found that workaholics report more work-family conflicts and poorer function outside of work than nonworkaholics. 

It makes logical sense. We only have so much time and headspace, and if one person’s mind is dominated by work there is little capacity leftover for tending to other aspects of life, such as nurturing relationships. In relationships and families where one person is a workaholic, it is easy to see how resentment would build and disagreements spark, which could eventually lead to the breakdown of meaningful relationships. 

What If I Might Be Addicted to Work?

If you’ve read through this article and are worried you might be addicted to work, the good news is that work addiction is treatable and there is help available to help you get better. 

Treatment Options for Work Addiction

There are different treatment options available to you depending on the severity of your addiction to work. Below we’ll outline some of the most common ones. 

  • Inpatient treatment: If you are suffering from a severe addiction to work, you could benefit from inpatient treatment. This can be helpful as it will remove you from your everyday triggers and lifestyle, and give you the dedicated time and space to explore the reasons behind your addiction to work.
  • Outpatient treatment: If inpatient treatment is not accessible to you, perhaps you have other commitments you cannot get out of, you might benefit from an outpatient treatment program. This will enable you to remain based at home, attending a program of treatment during the day. 
  • Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is an evidence-based therapy for addressing many behavioural addictions. During a CBT session, you will unpack your current thought patterns, examine your core beliefs and come up with a new tool kit of healthy coping mechanisms. 
  • Workaholics Anonymous: If you’re just starting to consider you might have an addiction to work, Workaholics Anonymous meetings can be a productive place to start. It follows the same beneficial 12-step program used in Alcoholics Anonymous, which provides a clear roadmap towards recovery.  
  • Medication: While you won’t find a specific medication for workaholism, if you have an underlying mental health condition you may find that medication can help with that. 

If you’re interested in seeking help for your addiction to working, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our friendly team on 0808 271 7500 and find out how we can help you.

FAQs

What Is the Root Cause of Workaholism?

There is no one root cause of workaholism. Instead, it is likely caused by multiple factors including environmental upbringing, personality and belief systems.

What Are the Psychological Effects of Workaholism?

Being a workaholic can lead to a range of negative psychological effects including irritability, guilt and insomnia. 

Why Are People With ADHD Workaholics?

Not everyone with ADHD is a workaholic, but there is some crossover. Reasons could include overcompensating for ADHD traits, the ability to hyper-focus and using work to soothe stress.

What Is the Workaholic Breakdown Syndrome?

This breakdown syndrome is referenced in Barbara Killinger’s Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction in which she writes that this ‘soul-destroying addiction’ can cause people to suffer ‘the loss of personal and professional integrity.’

References

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