Workaholism: ‘the addiction of this century’

Confessions of a [recovering] workaholic

If I am being honest, I am a workaholic.

I am not even really sure when I developed an addiction to work. I do know I was earning money baby-sitting at the age of 12, and started my own greeting card business in the 5th grade. I went to a small high school that required everyone to participate in everything. So I ran cross country, played basketball, ran track, played golf, competed in FFA events, starred in the school play all while taking dual credit classes to earn college credit. Starting at the age of 15, I spent my summers working 16 hour days at a Christian kid’s camp.

I completed my undergrad in 3 years while working part-time jobs. I took an assistantship in graduate school, a full load, and continued to work an extra 20 hour-a-week job on top of that.

Then I graduated and worked full time jobs while I would adjunct up to 3 classes a semester. (A full teaching load is 4 classes max).

By the time I decided to teach full-time, I was taking on between 8-12 classes each semester and teaching Fall, Winter-mester, Spring, May-mester, and both summer sessions in an ever-revolving workload.

I will admit that I have worked on holidays, I have passed on family trips because I had to work. I even took my laptop on my honeymoon-and yes, sadly I did work some.

Sound unhealthy? That’s because it is.

Workaholics are addicts, plain and simple. And workaholism is a disease that must be treated.

If you read my earlier blog, In Defense of Rest, you know I have suffered from exhaustion 3 times.

Which is why I am now in recovery. I have been forced to face the fact that I need to slow down and take care of my health. So I take on less. I pass on good opportunities because they are not the best for me. I try to unplug from work and decompress. I make working out a priority and (try) to get a recommended 8 hours of sleep.

When I consider the basement of some of my top strengths, it is not surprising that I could easily become addicted to work.

  • Achiever [No 6] Unbalanced, over-committed, can’t say no, burns the candle at both ends, too concentrated on work, work is more important than the people

  • Focus [No. 3] Absorbed, tough to relax, intense, stressed

  • Ideation [No 1]: creates more work, always something new, never satisfied

  • Significance [No 2]: recognition-hungry

The sad reality is that I am not alone. It is estimated that 30% of the greater population are workaholics.

According to an article published in Business Insider, research surrounding Americans and their attitudes towards work has uncovered a nation of workaholics.

  • 50% said monitoring emails outside of work was routine, 38% said it was not necessary

  • (Under age of 30) 70% had no issue with answering emails at home

  • (Over age of 30) 52% had no issue with answering emails at home

  • Majority said they prefer 20K more in salary in lieu of 4 additional weeks off, 32% preferred the extra time over the additional money

  • 63% preferred collecting pay for unused sick or vacation time instead of having time off for them

  • When faced with spare time, 30% searched for work to do, 30% exercised, 20% read

Workaholics defined

Before we go much further, let me assure you that there is a difference between workaholics and hard workers.

According to Psychology Today, hard workers are emotionally present and they can balance between work and life. They believe that “any periodic burst of overworking in order to meet an important deadline or an emergency situation needs to be purposely followed by a reduced schedule or days off to restore depleted resources.”

Workaholics differ in the fact that they cannot balance their work with personal responsibilities. “They are obsessed with their work performance and hooked on an adrenaline-high. Bent on self-aggrandizement, these ego-driven folks reach one goal, and immediately set another more ambitious one. Staying at the same level of accomplishment is considered a failure.”

Research surrounding addictions to work have found that workaholism most affects “younger, well-educated workers, in self-employed and private sector, with managerial responsibilities and higher income.” The addiction seems to taper off as age increases. Researchers speculate that the decline is caused by several factors, 1) a maturation of the individual as she ages, 2) an intentional decision to change behavior, 3) or a forced change brought on by rearing a family or a decline in health. Research has also found that the addiction does not discriminate when it comes to gender.

Karoshi: The side effects of overworking

While you might think clocking long hours at the office, bringing work home, and refusing to unplug would spike your productivity and make you more successful, research has found the opposite to be true.

Side effects from being addicted to work can include:

  • Poor physical and mental health

  • Panic Attacks

  • Performance-anxiety

  • Acute Sleep disorders

  • And even Premature death

Workaholism tendencies have been linked to other behavioral disorders including ADHD, OCD, depression and anxiety.

Sadly, in some cases, researchers believe workaholism can even play a role in suicide.

The Japanese have a word for ‘death from overwork’: karoshi.

In 2016, the Japanese government estimated that one in five Japanese workers were at risk for ‘karoshi’, death from overwork.

Yet, according to the International Labour Organization, Americans clock an average of 137 hours more per year than Japanese workers.

With so much at stake, the question we should all be asking ourselves is:

"Do I have a healthy relationship with work?"

Are you a workaholic?

Schou Andreassen, of the University of Bergen, has developed a questionnaire called the Bergen Work Addiction Scale to gauge if you are a workaholic. Andreassen and her team developed these questions based on behaviors similar to other addictions.

When asking yourself these questions, consider how often you do these based on a Likert scale:

Always, Often, Sometimes, Occasionally, or Never.

  1. You think of how you can free up more time to work.

  2. You spend much more time working than initially intended.

  3. You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and/or depression.

  4. You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.

  5. You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.

  6. You de-prioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.

  7. You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

According to Andreassen, scoring “Always” or “Often” in four of the seven categories, means you could possibly be a workaholic.

Want a second opinion?

The Workaholics Anonymous website also offers an online 20 question survey to help you determine if you are at risk.

Treatments & Interventions

If you find yourself scoring higher on the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, or the WA questionnaire, there are several treatment options available, many of which are also proven for treating other forms of addiction.

However, due to the rise of workaholics in the workplace, researchers are suggesting that organizations should also help deter the addiction by avoiding the creation of cultures that breed workaholics.

In a paper published by the University of Bergen on the topic of Workaholism, researchers charged corporations with the responsibility of interventions in order to help and hopefully prevent the making of workaholics.

How can an organization accomplish this?

I think one of the best things leaders can do for their followers is to set clear boundaries as to what and when employees are expected to work and to communicate said boundaries clearly. Violation of such boundaries should be reserved for emergencies only.

As common sense as this strategy might sound, corporate giants of days gone by were not so accommodating.

Consider American Airlines CEO, Bob Crandall who would go into the office on the weekends and leave notes on desks that said, “I was here. Where were you?” Or Polaroid’s own Dr. Edwin Land who would often call his employees during the early hours of the morning and ask “Would you come in and meet me at five [AM]?”

These leaders were operating in a world before technology made instant communication possible. I can only imagine, if it were available then, how such technology would have intensified their efforts. This raises an important point. In a world where we cannot escape the office, in fact it travels home with us, the only option is to set clear boundaries and to communicate expectations.

Contrast Crandall and Land’s behaviors against Dr. David Perlmutter, the Dean of my college. At the end of his emails appears text that reads, “Note: My working hours may not be your working hours so please do not feel obligated to reply outside of your own normal work schedule.”

How can you help your employees set healthy boundaries when it comes to working and non-working hours?

Once established, how can you communicate those expectations to your employees?

And, will you agree to abide by them?


Workaholism has been called ‘the addiction of this century

It is a dangerous addiction that affects our younger workers and is fed by the ease of which we are able to take the office home with us. It brings with it a whole host of terrible side-effects that can even lead to suicide.

I recall a receptionist I worked with who refused to take a lunch break every day. She wore the extra hour she worked like a badge of honor. One day, an upper level manager took notice and realized she was not leaving. He made it his personal mission to ensure she went to lunch every day until she got the message. Skipping lunch was not seen as an over-committed employee in his organization. It was an hour spent at her own personal expense and she needed to take a break.

She got the message and began taking her lunch break.

If we are going to create organizations that do not create workaholics, we need to create clear boundaries and communicate them to our employees.

We owe it to our employees and to the overall health of our organizations.

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