My name is Maria, 29, and I live in San Francisco. I want to make a public confession of the addiction I have, which, over the years, has been getting progressively worse.
Many who know and work with me are aware of my unhealthy, pathological obsession for work.
But to date, no one, including myself has held me to account for my clearly self-destructive behaviour.
Not that going public with this addiction will make me an outcast.
Workaholism is the “respectable addiction,” many say, and those who suffer from it are often seen by their bosses and co-workers as ambitious, committed, focused, even caring.
I know I often am, and I know that I am not alone.
It’s well known that employers appreciate hard workers everywhere.
In fact, working long hours on the job and earning a lot is considered by many to be the modern mark of success. Being identifyed as 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 !
But how do you know if you are a workaholic?
A professor of work and organisational psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, his name is Wilmar Schaufeli, describes a workaholic as “a person who works obsessively hard in a compulsive way”. It’s a combination between excessive work and compulsive work, compulsive tendency.”
I add that today this tendency can obviously be exacerbated by the opportunities found in new technological innovations (laptops, smartphones, the Internet).
Bryan Robinson, a psychotherapist based in North Carolina who conducted early research into the effects of work addiction also says: “Workaholism is not defined by hours. It’s defined by what’s going on inside of us,” he adds: “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.”
Unfortunately workaholism is not currently 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.
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 shows, among other things, that workaholics are less productive than colleagues with a healthier attitude and approach to work.
Malissa A Clark, an assistant professor of industrial and organisational psychology at the University of Georgia in charge of the meta-analysis study, notes that workaholics reported greater job stress, lower job satisfaction, lower life satisfaction and more burnout. 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,” Clark adds, “despite the concept of workaholism often being linked with traits like being driven, competitive, ambitious and productive.”
Moreover norwegian researchers have created the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, where you can gauge your behavior, feelings and attitude towards work. This large-scale study, recently published in Norway, linked workaholic tendencies to other psychiatric issues, like obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression.
Workaholics Anonymous also has an online questionnaire that can help you determine if you might need to seek help.
What actually can lead to work addiction?
There are many factors that can combine to create it.
- A desire to be seen as smarter or more competent. Ironically, this often stems from a lack of self-confidence.
- A belief that self-worth is attached to work. This can come from many sources, such as a parent who instilled that hard work is the only thing that matters in life.
- A need for constant attention. Work addicts do get quite a bit of attention, especially from supervisors who may take advantage of having a workaholic on their teams.
- A fear of losing money. Some work addicts come from families where poverty was common. Even if they are now comfortable and earning enough, they always feel like they could lose it all in an instant.
- A fear of change. The workaholic knows how to do their job, but they may not be as accomplished elsewhere. Therefore, the work addict never changes gears or tries anything new.
- Worry of embarrassment. Many workaholics are perfectionists who never want to be seen as wrong. They worry they’ll make a mistake and embarrass themselves, so they work extra hard on everything they do.
- Desire to avoid dealing with circumstances. Workaholics may have negative circumstances brewing at home. Rather than deal with emotions or problems, they simply work all the time. It’s a convenient excuse for not facing reality.
- Loneliness and fear of solitude. The workaholic may see work as a companion or a substitute for human interactions. They may have no relationships, and so they may fear being alone in a house without knowing what to do.
Finally there’s another snag. Some work addicts honestly love their work. They simply like to work all the time, to the detriment of everything else. Even so, what they may not realize is they’re setting themselves up to burn out.
Dr Claudia Herbert, a clinical psychologist at the Oxford Development Centre, in Putney, Oxfordshire says that many workaholics have other mental health disorders.
They may feel depressed, they may actually think that life is a little bit empty, they may have anxiety problems, they may also have addictions to cope with.
Work addiction may be caused in part by a person being pushed too hard by his or her parents in their earlier life.
Infact she says “People who as children were reinforced by their achievements rather than who they are, they are more likely to become work addicted.”
An important risk is that workaholics very often don’t see that their behaviour is problematic because the fact they are doing vast amounts of work often means they are earning more and being promoted.
How is it possible treating workaholics ?
The organization Workers Anonymous has originally developed a 12-step recovery program to help people who have let their work take over their lives.
The approach to treatment is closely based on the 12-step approach. The steps start with admitting that you have a problem, and then, they take you on a spiritual and emotional journey that will help you to regain control over your life.
Prof Schaufeli thinks that going to Workaholics Anonymous works for many sufferers because, he says “you see people who have the same problem, so you are not alone, I think this is an important thing for all kinds of behavioural problems or addictions.”
For other people with work addiction problems, having one-to-one therapy with a trained professional might be the answer.
Some experts say it needs to be individually tailored to each sufferer, and getting to the bottom of what caused it.
It’s also strategically important that workaholics learn to work having a plan and following a plan, instead of compulsively diving in to whatever pops up.
It means working by 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.
Today are borning differents rehabilitation centre and mental health retreat. They run a work-related stress and executive burnout programme, trying to get people’s work/life balance back.
In these centres clinical psychologists actually support people in reconnecting to who they are, it’s about getting a more balanced life.
The goal is to back in enjoying to have more time for fun and relationships with people, placing limits on the number of hours they work in a day.
But a huge problem in the lack of available treatment, says Malissa A 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.
So, for the future more research is needed and the main aim will be to provide an updated oversight of the research area related to definition, prevalence, assessment, causes, outcomes, intervention as well as proposed future research directions.