You’re the first to arrive at the office, and you’re the last to leave. You’ll drop everything in an instant to attend to a work-related problem, and you rarely say no to a new project, even if your plate is already full. You’re the most dedicated worker you know, and although people often tell you to slow down and smell the roses, you don’t listen, because you have to work hard. It’s what you do. Does that make you a workaholic?
Between 8 and 17.5 percent of college-educated people are addicted to work, and that number is even higher among women who are attorneys, therapists, and physicians. But since workaholism doesn’t cause changes in the brain’s structures and functions like substance addictions, and withdrawal symptoms are neither concrete nor physical, it can be difficult to know whether you’re a workaholic or just a very dedicated and highly engaged worker.
Workaholism has been studied for over 45 years, but there’s still a range of medical definitions for the condition and several different sets of criteria by which to measure it. But the common thread that runs through all of them is that workaholism is characterized by working to the point of no longer enjoying it.
Is Workaholism Really an Addiction?
In an attempt to better define workaholism, University of Southern California psychology professor Dr. Steven Sussman, who focuses on preventive medicine and addiction, identified five elements of any type of addiction:
- It satisfies an instinctive physical desire
- It’s marked by a preoccupation with the behavior
- It only temporarily satiates the body and mind
- It’s characterized by a loss of control over the behavior
- It results in negative consequences
While work engagement and workaholism both involve excessive working hours, workaholism carries with it a number of negative behaviors, and the consequences tend to add up.
Health Effects of Workaholism
Workaholism results in a work-life imbalance that lowers your overall quality of life. Some of the specific detrimental health effects of workaholism include:
- Insomnia and other sleep problems
- Physical exhaustion
- Weight gain
- Anger, anxiety, and depression
- High blood pressure and other stress-related conditions
- Headaches, stomachaches, and other psychosomatic pain
- Burnout, which is characterized by emotional exhaustion and a loss of control over various aspects of your life
Risk Factors for Workaholism
Some people may be more susceptible to workaholism than others, according to Dr. Sussman, including entrepreneurs, white collar workers, people with compulsive personality traits, and those who grew up in a household where a good work ethic was of the utmost importance.
Additionally, some studies have found that workaholism impacts women more frequently than men, and women report feeling more exhausted as a result of excessive work hours than men do.
The Bergen Work Addiction Scale: Where Do You Fall?
Researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway developed the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, which is based on the symptoms of drug addiction. The scale is comprised of seven criteria:
- You think about how you can manage to free up more time for working
- You spend more time working than you planned on
- You work to help reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression, or helplessness
- Others have told you to cut down on work time, but you don’t listen
- You get stressed out if you’re prevented from working
- Work takes priority over your hobbies and leisure activities
- Your excessive work hours have caused negative effects on your health
Those who answer “often” or “always” to four or more of the criteria may suffer from workaholism.
Like other types of addictions, simply cutting down or quitting cold-turkey rarely works for curbing a work addiction. That’s because there are nearly always underlying issues that lead to workaholism, and in order to break the cycle and restore balance to your life, those issues must be dealt with.
If your life satisfaction is low and you’re experiencing other negative effects of your working habits, an addiction program that includes various behavioral therapies, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help you achieve a life-work balance that will lead to improved health and better interpersonal relationships as well as help you develop a healthier attitude toward both work and leisure time.