Work Addiction

Written by Mara Tyler | Published on August 14, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 13, 2014

When Work Becomes an Addiction

While the idea of work addiction (or workaholism) may seem like a novel way to describe a driven person, work addiction is a real mental health condition. Like any other addiction, work addiction is the inability to stop the behavior. It often stems from a compulsive need to achieve status and success, or to escape emotional stress. Work addiction is often driven by job success and is common in people who can be described as perfectionists.

Much like someone with a drug addiction, a person with work addiction achieves a “high” from engaging in work. This leads them to keep repeating the behavior that gives them this high. People with work addiction may be unable to stop the behavior, despite negative consequences to their personal life or mental health.

Symptoms and Signs

In a culture where hard work is praised and putting in overtime is often expected, it can be difficult to recognize work addiction. People with work addiction will often justify their behavior by explaining why it is a good thing and can help them achieve success. They may simply appear committed to their job or the success of their projects. However, ambition and addiction are quite different. A person with work addiction engages in compulsive work so as to avoid other aspects of their life, particularly troubling emotional issues or personal crises. Symptoms of a work addiction might include:

  • long hours at the office, even when not needed
  • losing sleep to engage in work projects or finish tasks
  • obsession with work-related success
  • intense fear of failure at work
  • paranoia about work-related performance
  • disintegration of personal relationships because of work
  • defensive attitude toward others about their work
  • use of work as a way to avoid relationships
  • working to cope with feelings of guilt or depression
  • working to avoid dealing with crises like death, divorce, or financial trouble

Diagnosis

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale is used to identify work addiction. Developed by the University of Bergen and accepted in the medical community, this scale measures several factors including how often the following apply in your life. The items are measured on a scale of (1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Always. Items you may be asked to rate include:

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • You work in order 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 intend.
  • 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 scale says that if you can answer “often” or “always” to at least four of these items, you may have a work addiction.

Treatment Options

If you have work addiction, you may not need the same kind of treatment as someone with a drug addiction, but it’s possible that you will require an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation program in order to initially manage the behavior. While this is more common in drug and alcohol addictions, severe work addictions can also be helped by this intensive approach. Inpatient treatment requires you to stay at a facility during recovery. Outpatient treatment, on the other hand, allows you to live at home while attending classes and counseling during the day.

Many people with work addiction find help through 12-step and other group therapy programs. Options for group therapy include programs like Work Addicts Anonymous (WAA). This kind of program allows people to connect with people going through similar struggles and give them a healthy source of support.

In some cases, a work addiction can result from a coexisting mental health condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder. Similarly, the addiction could cause mental health issues like depression. For these reasons, it may be helpful to have a mental health assessment. A mental health expert can help design a treatment plan that will address the addiction and any other underlying problems. One-on-one therapy and even medications could assist in controlling impulses, anxiety, and stress.

Expectations

Like most addictions, work addiction will get worse over time until help is sought out. People may experience “burnout” if they work to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. This is a common result of work addiction. Burnout can lead to extreme stress, damaged relationships, and even drug abuse.

Without treatment, a person with work addiction could alienate themselves from friends and family. Waiting too long to get help could damage these relationships permanently. Also, chronic stress that could result from constant working can be hard on your physical health, leading to a weakened immune system and increased risk of disease.

Fortunately, work addiction is manageable. With treatment, people can restore a healthy work balance in their life.

Since people with work addiction often perform the addictive behavior to avoid feelings of guilt about not working, it’s important for the recovering addict to develop a healthy relationship with work. Most of us need to work in order to pay bills, so achieving this balance is crucial. In most cases it is impossible to simply stop working.

It may be helpful to take some time off from work to realize that life will go on without constant working. A career change may also help manage the addiction. As a psychosocial condition, work addiction is usually much easier to “cure” than something like a drug addiction. Lifestyle changes, practicing balance, and avoiding stressors and triggers will help provide the best chance for success.

Resources

If you or someone close to you might have a work addiction, there are organizations that can help. The following resources may be helpful in providing further information about work addiction and treatment options:

  • Work Addicts Anonymous
  • Workaholics Anonymous
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers
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