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Because it doesn’t involve dangerous or illegal substances, workaholism is often shrugged off. This may also be, in part, due to the fact that most people work and it can seem a blurry line between what constitutes working hard and workaholism. Is staying late to catch up on work conscientious or crossing the threshold into workaholism? What about replying to non-urgent emails outside of office hours?
In this article, we’ll take a look at what workaholism is, what causes it, and what are some of the common signs. We’ll also explore the behaviours that drive workaholism, what role perfectionism plays, and how to cope if you’re in a relationship with a workaholic. We’ll finish up by looking at how workaholism can lead to burnout and how it can be treated.
What is Workaholism?
The phrase workaholism was first used in 1971 when psychologist Wayne Oates described it as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly”. In the following half a century, psychologists have disagreed over the exact definition and criteria for measuring the phenomenon.
Over many various research papers, workaholism has been described as an addiction to work, a pattern of behaviour that occurs across multiple organisational settings and a condition made up of high drive, high work involvement, and low work enjoyment. For the purposes of this article, we like the simple definition of an addiction to work, as this comprehensive definition covers a range of experiences.
Looking at it through the lens of addiction can be helpful, as you can spot the similarities of thoughts, behaviours, and actions between workaholism and other, more well-known, addictions. At its heart, it involves seeking out a ‘high’, but instead of that high being a dangerous or illegal substance, it’s derived from the more socially acceptable form of working. This high, like drugs and alcohol, may come with negative impacts on the person’s health and enjoyment of life, but nevertheless, they feel compelled to repeat the behaviour in search of the high.
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What Causes Workaholism?
Like all addictions, there is no one ultimate cause of workaholism. There are lots of reasons why someone might end up becoming a workaholic. It could be the drive to fulfil a simple psychological need, such as that of competence. But there may be deeper issues driving workaholism too. Workaholism can be a way to relive patterns from the past or soothe past trauma or current life issues.
There have been some links between certain personality traits and workaholism. For example, compared with non-workaholics, workaholics are more likely to be conscientious, extroverted, and neurotic when it comes to the big five personality traits. However it’s a fairly weak link and it’s not to say that, for example, someone who is introverted can’t be a workaholic.
The environment you find yourself in can also influence the likelihood of developing workaholism too. While working a very demanding job won’t necessarily result in workaholism, it can prove the outlet that certain people predisposed to addiction use to develop workaholism.
What Are the Signs of Workaholism?
Researchers wanted to develop a way to measure workaholism and in doing so came up with the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. There are essentially seven main criteria and answering ‘often’ or ‘always’ to at least four of them suggests you may have a work addiction.
- 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 de-prioritise hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.
Behaviours That Drive Workaholism
There are multiple behaviours that drive workaholism, and they can usually be broken down into motivational, emotional, or psychological causes.
For example, a motivational cause may look like a person initially being motivated to perform well in a role but soon spiralling into pushing themselves harder and harder, perhaps staying later or working over the weekend.
An emotional cause may mean that when they aren’t engaged in behaviours pertaining to their work, they suffer emotionally. For example, perhaps they feel they’re slipping on their continued professional development or maybe they are unable to access their work communications over the holidays, and as a result, they experience a range of negative emotions such as anxiety, sadness, or shame.
A psychological driver for certain behaviour may look like ingrained thought patterns, usually focusing on work. This means that they can rarely escape work, even when they aren’t actively engaged with their work. For example, they may find their mind drifting off while they are having a date with their spouse, or unable to concentrate on watching a sports match because their thoughts keep returning to work.
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Addicted to Work
Being addicted to work is similar to any other addiction in that the workaholic is repeatedly seeking out a high at a cost to their mental well-being.
Are Workaholics Perfectionists?
Being a workaholic is closely linked with identifying with a Type A personality and perfectionism. Perfectionism is a personality trait in which someone is attempting to strive for flawlessness. It often involves harsh internal criticism and chastising when they fail to measure up to their own impossibly high standards.
Research has found that having self-oriented perfectionism, in which you set high standards for yourself, is linked with workaholism. Their findings suggest that workaholism in these people is driven by personal importance and ego involvement, as well as being motivated by internal rewards and punishment.
Is Workaholism a Mental Illness?
Workaholism is closely linked with other mental health conditions. The Research found that workaholism intersected with several other mental illnesses including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and anxiety. The research found that workaholics scored higher on all psychiatric symptoms than nonworkaholics.
In this particular study, 8% of the 16,426 people studied had workaholism, defined as “being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation, and investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas.” Of those that were workaholics, about a third met the criteria for anxiety (34%) and ADHD (33%), a quarter for OCD (25%), and almost 1 in 10 for depression (9%). Across all of the mental illness conditions, the rates varied between two to four times higher when compared with nonworkaholics.
The Two Types of Workaholics
Research has found that there are two types of workaholics: enthusiastic workaholics and non-enthusiastic workaholics. Enthusiastic workaholics scored above average on all three of the subscales the data looked at, whereas non-enthusiastic workaholics scored above average for work involvement and drive, but below average for work enjoyment.
From this research, we can glean that not all workaholics are actually deriving pleasure from their pursuits, and enjoyment of the job is not a prerequisite for being a workaholic.
There is another model of workaholism that has gained traction in recent years that demonstrates quite clearly enjoyment is not necessary to meet the definition of a workaholic. This model splits such people into four groups: defeatist, saboteur, punisher, and martyr.
Briefly, the defeatist won’t allow pleasure and gets their high through perceived personal sacrifice. The saboteur sabotages things they purport to care about for work, such as their health or relationships. The punisher has a ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra and will push themselves beyond necessary exertion to do an impeccable job. Lastly, the martyr has a ‘woe is me attitude and seeks their high from feeling hard done by. In all of these examples, you can see that enjoyment is not a clear contributor to their drive to work.
How Workaholism Differs From Working Long Hours
Put simply, the difference between working long hours and workaholism is whether you have the ability to switch off. One person might do 60 hours a week, including the odd bit at home, but if they have the ability to turn their laptop off and relax and unwind guilt-free, they are not being negatively affected by their work. Whereas another person could work fewer hours, yet their mind is constantly thinking about work and when they aren’t working they feel guilty or anxious. That person likely has workaholic tendencies.
And the ramifications of workaholism are much starker than that of working long hours.
A study by Harvard Business Review looked into the different health outcomes for people who work long hours and people who have workaholism. To categorise each group, the survey asked participants about workaholic tendencies (e.g. “I feel guilty when I am not working on something”), along with the hours they work each week. They also asked people to cite psychosomatic health issues, such as headaches and stomach problems. Then there was a health screening, which flagged various health biomarkers of interest, like waist measurement and triglycerides.
The results were controlled for a range of issues such as age, sex, education, and family health history. Interestingly, the study found that work hours were not related to health issues but workaholism was.
The results showed that people who worked long hours (over 40), but who didn’t obsess over work, had fewer health complaints than their peers who had workaholism. Meanwhile, along with more health complaints and a higher risk for metabolic syndrome, workaholics also reported a higher need for recovery, more sleep problems, more cynicism, more emotional exhaustion, and more depressive feelings.
How to Cope in a Relationship With a Workaholic?
Being in a relationship with anyone battling an addiction can be deeply challenging and having a workaholic partner is no exception. Here are some of the ways you can healthily navigate your relationship:
It can be difficult to deal with a partner who constantly puts work first, so it’s easy to understand how nagging can become the default. But it doesn’t work and it just wears both parties down. Instead, learn how to communicate your needs and boundaries in a clear, calm way. Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg is an excellent place to start.
Have strong boundaries (and see them through)
You may accidentally be enabling your partner when you constantly make exceptions for them. This can lead to a build-up of resentment on your behalf, meanwhile, they are being led to believe their behaviour is acceptable because you always accommodate it. The key here is to communicate your boundaries in a calm, non-confrontational manner and make sure they know you’ll follow through with the consequence.
One example of how this could potentially look for you: perhaps you book a holiday together but at the last minute your partner says they can’t make it because of work commitments. Instead of cancelling the trip and feeling bitter, tell your partner that you’re sorry that’s the decision they have made, but that you’ll be taking a friend instead.
Engage in hobbies you both enjoy
Do you have a shared interest? Something that can help distract your partner from work? While it’s not your responsibility to solve their workaholism if there is a hobby that helps them switch off – whether that’s couples yoga, hiking, or going to the movies – it can be useful to prioritise it during your time together.
Workaholism and Burnout
So what happens if workaholism is left unchecked? In this section, we look at the link between workaholism and burnout.
Does Workaholism Cause Burnout
As is the case with all addictions, workaholism will continue to get worse until the person suffering from it decides to make a change. In the case of workaholism, this often leads to burnout. Burnout is a place of total and complete physical and mental exhaustion and in 2019 the World Health Organisation recognised burnout as an occupational phenomenon.
How do you know if you’ve reached burnout? Some of the most common signs include:
- Being tied most of the time
- Feeling helpless or defeated
- Developing a negative mindset
- Doubting yourself
- Feeling overwhelmed
Reaching burnout can also put pressure on your body and could lead to a weaker immune system and a greater risk of developing a health problem. It essentially all adds up to a point where you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.
How to Treat Workaholism
The good news is that you can get better! While someone struggling with workaholism may not require the same intensity of treatment as someone dealing with drug addiction, they may nonetheless benefit from an inpatient or outpatient program.
If you are battling a severe work addiction, an intervention such as intensive inpatient treatment could be helpful as it will totally remove you from your environment and break lots of the everyday triggers you face. Another option is outpatient treatment, where you live at home while attending a program during the day.
While there is no magic workaholism cure, there are plenty of treatment options to try. You could attend a Workaholics Anonymous (WA) meeting, they also run plenty of zoom or telephone meetings for those who don’t live locally. WA has adopted the popular, and crucially, beneficial, 12-step program from Alcoholics Anonymous which participants are able to work through.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a well-documented tool for dealing with many behavioural addictions. During a CBT session, you will learn to identify unhelpful thought patterns and challenge your core beliefs. In the case of workaholism, these may pertain to self-worth, failure, and perfectionism.
Workaholism and Medication
While there isn’t medication for the treatment of workaholism, there are treatments available for some of the mental health conditions that people who have workaholism also experiences, such as anxiety or OCD. If you suspect this is your experience, make an appointment with your healthcare practitioner to discuss your options.
Note: The contents of this page are not to replace the advice of a medical professional
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How Do I Pay For Rehab?
One concern we sometimes hear from people is how they will fund their rehab treatment. The cost of rehab varies depending on what kind of accommodation you choose. You can pay for treatment at Castle Craig privately, or through medical insurance, and some people receive funding through the NHS.
How Long Is the Rehab Programme?
Residential rehab treatment starts at four weeks and can go up to 12+ weeks. Research shows us that the longer you stay in rehab and are part of the residential therapy programme, the longer the likelihood of continued abstinence and stable recovery.
Who Will I Speak to When I Call?
When you call you will reach our Help Centre team who will give you all the information you need to help you decide whether to choose treatment at Castle Craig. Once you have decided that you would like to have a free screening assessment you will be put in touch with our admissions case managers who will guide you through the admissions process.
What Happens at the End of My Treatment?
Castle Craig thoroughly prepares patients before departure by creating a personalised continuing care plan which is formulated following discussions with the medical and therapeutic team. We offer an online continuing care programme which runs for 24 weeks after leaving treatment, in order to ensure a smooth transition back into your everyday life. Patients leaving treatment automatically join our Recovery Club where they can stay connected via our annual reunion, events, online workshops and recovery newsletters.