There’s a fine balance between working to live and living to work.
For many people, work is more than just something we do to pay our bills. It can become a calling, a means of fulfillment.
But there’s a difference between being dedicated to your job and being a workaholic.
New research published in the journal PLOS ONE examined the prevalence of workaholism and how often overly dedicated work tactics intersect with symptoms of psychiatric illness.
These include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and anxiety.
“Workaholics scored higher on all the psychiatric symptoms than nonworkaholics,” lead researcher Cecilie Schou Andreassen, a clinical psychologist specialist at the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen (UiB) in Norway, said in a press release.
Those more likely to be workaholics, researchers say, include younger, single workers with higher education who are managers, self-employed, or work in the private sector. Women were also more likely to be workaholics.
Examining the Psychiatric Disorders
Researchers used data from 16,426 working people aged 16 to 75 years who completed a series of surveys to gauge their addiction to work and self-reporting inventories about ADHD, OCD, anxiety, and depression.
Overall, nearly 8 percent of the people surveyed had what researchers would call 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 addicted to their work, nearly 34 percent met the criteria for anxiety, almost 33 percent for ADHD, more than 25 percent for OCD, and almost 9 percent for depression.
Those rates were two to four times higher compared to nonworkaholics.
This begs a bigger question: Do workaholics have these underlying conditions and use work as a treatment or does working too hard bring out these disorders?
The prevalence of psychiatric symptoms among workaholics has researchers puzzled.
“Thus, taking work to the extreme may be a sign of deeper psychological or emotional issues,” Schou Andreassen said. “Whether this reflects overlapping genetic vulnerabilities, disorders leading to workaholism or, conversely, workaholism causing such disorders, remain uncertain.”
Still, there’s a chicken-and-egg scenario because these fields may be more appealing to people with certain conditions, namely ADHD. Workaholics, researchers say, may choose positions, jobs, or sectors that allow for day-to-day activities that suit them best. These can include a fast pace, quick deadlines, or changing duties.
Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City who was not affiliated with the study, said he hasn’t noticed a condition-career connection with patients in his practice, but he also says it’s not a bad idea for people with conditions like ADHD or OCD.
“Neither of those conditions have ‘cures’ per se, they are mostly just managed, so it wouldn't necessarily be the worst scenario to direct people to work that doesn't exploit those issues,” he told Healthline. “The problem would be pushing people into careers that actually amplify the problem.”
There also could also be other issues at play.
“Individuals with ADHD may have to work harder and longer to compensate for their work behavior caused by neurological deficits. They may also be at risk of taking on projects and tasks impulsively — resulting in more work than they can realistically do within normal working hours,” the study states. “Furthermore, it is hypothesized that these workaholic ADHD types push themselves in their job in order to disprove conceptions of them by others as being lazy or unintelligent.”
In the case of anxiety and depression, researchers say work may act as an escape mechanism.
Dobrenski, author of “Crazy: Notes on and off the Couch,” says in the ideal scenario, work could be a form of therapy by giving people purpose and meaning, a way to contribute to society, or a method to develop self-esteem.
“It can also serve as a meaningful distraction from other difficulties,” he said. “But, like many other things that can be useful, overdoing it has limitations and can serve as a way to not address other important aspects of life, simply because you've left no time for those and no longer have the emotional/cognitive energy for them.”
Are You a Workaholic?
The researchers used seven valid criteria when drawing the line between addictive and nonaddictive behavior to determine if a person could be considered a workaholic.
Using a scale of one to five, one being never and five being always, ask yourself if you’ve experienced these scenarios over the past year.
- 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, or 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 deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.
If you scored four or five on four or more of the criteria, sorry, but researchers say your behavior qualifies you as a workaholic.
While more studies are needed on the subject, researchers say physicians should not overlook that a seemingly successful workaholic does not have ADHD-related or other underlying issues that need attention.
“Their considerations affect both the identification and treatment of these disorders,” Schou Andreassen said.
With technology — smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. — providing access to work nearly everywhere, taking some time off from your digital devices can have a therapeutic benefit.
“Everyone should have moments of ‘unplugging,’ regardless of workaholism or not,” Dobrenski said. “But definitely, if you are addicted to your job and technology is even a small part of it, unplugging can give you a chance to catch your breath and reconnect to the real world.”