When work becomes an addiction

Work addiction, often called workaholism, 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 it’s common in people described as perfectionists.

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

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 a 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 a work addiction may engage in compulsive work to avoid other aspects of their life, like troubling emotional issues or personal crises. And similar to other addictions, the person may engage in the behavior unaware of the negative effects that the addiction is causing.

Symptoms of a work addiction include:

  • putting in long hours at the office, even when not needed
  • losing sleep to engage in work projects or finish tasks
  • being obsessed with work-related success
  • having intense fear of failure at work
  • being paranoid about work-related performance
  • disintegrating personal relationships because of work
  • having a defensive attitude toward others about their work
  • using 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

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale is used to identify work addiction. It was developed by the University of Bergen 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:

  • never (1)
  • rarely (2)
  • sometimes (3)
  • often (4)
  • always (5)

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 published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology indicates that if you can answer “often” or “always” to at least four of these items, you may have a work addiction.

If you have work addiction, you may not need the same level of treatment as someone with a drug addiction. However, it’s possible that initially you will require an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation program to manage the behavior.

While a rehabilitation program 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 allows you to live at home while attending classes and counseling during the day.

Many people with a work addiction find help through 12-step groups and other therapy programs. Options for group therapy are available through organizations such as Workaholics Anonymous. This kind of program allows you to connect with other people going through similar struggles and provides a healthy source of support.

Work addiction can result from a coexisting mental health condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or bipolar disorder. The addiction could also cause mental health issues, such as depression.

For these reasons, it may be helpful to have a mental health assessment. A mental health expert can help design a treatment plan. The plan will address the addiction and any underlying problems. One-on-one therapy, and even medications, could help control impulses, anxiety, and stress.

Like most addictions, work addiction will get worse over time until a person seeks help. 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 a work addiction could alienate themselves from friends and family. Waiting too long to get help could damage these relationships permanently. Also, chronic stress that sometimes results from constant working can be hard on physical health. This finding came out of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Overwork may lead to a weakened immune system and increased risk of disease. But fortunately, work addiction is manageable. With treatment, people can restore a healthy work balance in their live.

People with a work addiction often work to avoid feelings of guilt about not working. So, 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 creating a 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 control than drug addiction. The following changes might also help:

  • making lifestyle changes
  • balancing your life activities
  • avoiding stressors and triggers

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 giving more information about work addiction and treatment options: