Working hard is not only important in our society, but it is also considered a major asset. People who put in overtime or ‘burn the midnight oil’ are usually recognized by colleagues and most often rewarded with bonuses or promotions. We have all had that co-worker, the person we all silently detest because they are seen as the pack leader, always working and never taking time to rest or relax. While we have all had times where we worked ourselves harder than we normally would, this is not the case for those with an addiction to work.
Work addiction is also referred to as workaholism and is a real mental health condition recognized by the American Psychological Association. Like other addictions, such as drug addiction or being addicted to sex and love, work addiction makes the person suffering from this unable to stop the behavior. It is common for people addicted to work to be described as a perfectionist. Generally, work addiction stems from the compulsive need to achieve both status and success and the need to escape emotional stress caused by internal or external experiences. For example, a person could be feeling the stresses of their family life, which could then lead them to become addicted to work to escape feeling trapped by their kids or partner.
A person with an addiction to work like other addicts achieves the ultimate “high” from working, leading them to a sick cycle of repeating the same behavior to continue reaching the high that makes them feel successful. People addicted to work are oftentimes unable to stop this behavior without proper treatment. It could begin to affect their personal life, relationships, or physical or mental health if continued.
If you or someone you care about is suffering from work addiction, it is important to talk to someone you trust, a doctor, or a mental health professional as soon as you can. Read on to learn more about the symptoms, causes, and treatment choices for those suffering from work addiction.
We live in a culture where hard work is praised, and putting in extra hours is often expected, so it can be challenging to recognize when someone has a work addiction. It is important to know that there is a huge difference between simply working hard and suffering from work addiction. People with an addiction to work often justify their addictive behavior by explaining that what they’re doing is a good thing and will help them be successful. They may easily hide their addiction by saying that the success of their job or a specific project is important to them; however, ambition and addiction couldn’t be more different.
As we’ve stated before, a work addicted person might overwork themselves or compulsively work to escape and avoid other aspects of their life, such as other mental health issues or current or past personal crises. Like other addictions, such as alcoholism, they may engage in specific behaviors and be unaware of the adverse effects of being addicted to work.
Some of the symptoms of a person suffering from work addiction include:
Putting in an unnecessary amount of hours at the office, even when not needed
Losing sleep to finish work projects or tasks
Obsessing over the work-related success
Having an intense fear of failure at work
Being overly paranoid about performance or success at work
Losing personal relationships because of work
Constantly having a defensive attitude toward others about their work
Misusing work as a way to avoid relationships
Overworking to cope with feelings of guilt or depression
Overly working to prevent dealing with crises like death, divorce, or financial trouble
There are many explanations that a person could develop an addiction to work, with one possible explanation stemming from the want to fulfill basic psychological needs, such as the need to succeed or feel competent. People suffering from a work addiction generally devote an excessive amount of time and energy to work to overcompensate for other areas in their lives where they feel as if they’ve failed.
There can be other, much deeper mental issues that people addicted to work face, such as re-living patterns from their past, suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or using work as a way to ignore or ease other emotional or mental issues and trauma.
Other mental health circles link work addiction to a variety of personality traits.
These personality traits include someone that is:
Motivated by achievements
A Type A personality
Some of the leading causes of work addiction can include:
Workaholics are different from people who are highly engaged in their jobs. They usually don’t enjoy the work they’re doing but feel overly compelled to work because of internal pressures -- They work because they feel like they should or ought to be working, not because they really like what they’re working on.
Work addicts or workaholics have persistent thoughts about work even when they’re not working, and they find it difficult to fully let go of what’s going on at work or take a break or relax.
Workaholics tend to experience overly negative emotions like anxiety and guilt when they’re not working or at work.
Workaholics are known to work beyond what is reasonably expected of them by their boss, team, or organization.
Many of the above factors can combine to create an environment for people suffering from work addiction to have experiences or thoughts, including:
A desire to be seen as smarter or more competent, which ironically often derives from a lack of self-confidence.
A belief that self-worth is connected to work. This can come from many sources, such as parents who taught them that hard work is the only thing that matters.
A need for constant attention. Work addicts usually receive a lot of attention, especially from supervisors, who can, unfortunately, take advantage of them and their sickness.
Fear of losing money. Some work addicts were raised in a household that didn’t have a lot of money, and even if they are living comfortably now, they always feel as though they don’t have enough.
Worry about being embarrassed. Many workaholics are perfectionists who never want to be seen as incorrect or that they’ve made a mistake and constantly worry if they do, they will embarrass themselves in front of coworkers or superiors.
Desire to avoid dealing with other things in life. Workaholics may have unfavorable circumstances occurring at home. Rather than deal with emotions or problems, they work all the time, making it easy to turn away from reality.
Loneliness and fear of solitude. One of the negative effects of having a work addiction is losing friends, family, or romantic partners. This oftentimes scares a person with work addiction to fear going home to an empty house or ending up alone.
With all the above information, a person addicted to work can be triggered by different factors: internal, external, specific personality traits, all of which can exacerbate their feelings for needing to work harder. Conversely, some workaholics love what they do and enjoy working all the time, even if that means burning themselves out or losing things in life, such as friends, romantic partners, and family.
One of the ways work addiction is identified by using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. The University of Bergen developed this scale in Bergen, Norway, in 2014 to aid in diagnosing many types of addiction and is accepted in the medical community. The scale measures several factors, including how often certain aspects apply to your life. These items are measured on a scale of:
Things you might be asked to rate include:
You think of how you can free up more time to work.
You work to reduce guilt, helplessness, depression, and anxiety.
You’ve been told to reduce your time working but ignore those requests.
You spend much more time working than you initially intended.
You become stressed when you are not able to work.
You lower the importance of hobbies, fun activities, and fitness in exchange for more work time.
You work so much that it has negatively impacted your health.
Research related to the Bergen Scale published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology shows that if you answer “often” or “always” to at least four factors, you may have a work addiction.
Like most addictions, work addiction can worsen over time if they are unwilling to admit they have a problem, don’t recognize their addiction, or do not want to seek help. Those suffering from work addiction may experience “burnout” if they work to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. Unfortunately, burnout can lead to extreme stress, damage or end relationships, and drug or alcohol abuse.
Without treatment, a person addicted to work could permanently lose their relationships, and waiting too long to seek treatment can only alienate those relationships more quickly.
Experiencing chronic stress can also stem from overworking, which can be very hard on your physical health and wellbeing. Constantly working can lead to your immune system weakening and can result in an increased risk of disease. Fortunately, with proper treatment, work addiction is manageable, and healthy work balance can be restored.
If you have an addiction to work, you may not need the same treatment level as someone with drug addiction. There are many ways to seek treatment for an addiction to work; some of these include:
Talk to Your Doctor
If you feel as though you are addicted to work, it is important to talk to a doctor or other mental health professional. As we’ve stated before, work addiction can emerge from a preexisting mental health condition. For example, if you’ve already been diagnosed with OCD or depression, this could lead you to become addicted to work as these disorders can cause you to feel inadequate, which could drive you to work harder to mask those feelings. For these reasons, it might be helpful to have a mental health assessment from a medical professional that may help you put a treatment plan together and better manage both the underlying condition and work addiction.
Online therapy had become wildly popular, especially during 2020, when the world began to shelter-in-place, making it more difficult to see a therapist in person. Online therapy has proven to be just as effective as in-person therapy. It has many benefits, such as no travel time, which is usually more affordable, and you can be in the comfort of your own home while you connect with a licensed therapist.
A few online therapists include:
People who suffer from work addiction oftentimes say they feel as though they’re the only ones dealing with addiction, making them feel like they’re alone. Group therapy helps people understand that they are not the only ones that have feelings of inadequacy or that they’re not successful.
This type of care focuses on the individual's problems. After one person shares, other people in the group are encouraged to share their similar thoughts and experiences, leading to a mutual understanding that other people are struggling with work addiction and that you don’t have to face this by yourself.
Group therapy options include:
Making simple lifestyle changes could also help you manage your work addiction. A few lifestyle changes that might help are:
It could help to take some time off from work to help you realize that life, in fact, can still go on without feeling the need to work constantly. Addiction can adversely affect your relationships; taking a bit of time off work to reconnect with the people in your life that you’ve pushed away could be the first step to recovery.
A career change may also help manage the addiction. Breaking away from the job that caused you to become addicted to work or stepping away from a high-stress or high-performance job may help you realize that work isn’t as important as having a fulfilled life.
Balancing the things you do in your everyday life can make all the difference -- Make time to relax, schedule time to be active, and be sure to connect or reconnect with the people in your life that can support you on the road to work addiction recovery.