How to know if you’re addicted to work

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

Workaholism is one of the most difficult addictions to admit or even realize. This is because we live in a society where hard work is encouraged from the first time someone asks you as a child what you want to be when you grow up.

The answer is usually defined in a type of work rather than a feeling that you seek to be such as a happy person or a great parent. We live in a culture that constantly encourages and praises hard work.

But working too much – addictively – can certainly have terrible consequences.

Of course, we need to provide for our families and to give what we can to society. But we need to know about keeping a healthy work-life balance.

Behavioral addiction

In the same way that someone might drink too much or use drugs to numb negative feelings, some people use work.

As with using drugs or with the gambling addict there might also be the chase of a high from such as earning a good bonus or making a great deal.

But workaholism is a type of addiction that involves a compulsion to engage in a rewarding non-substance-related behavior. This is despite it being detrimental to the addict and most usually others around them as well.

For many of today’s leading executives, the pressure to perform is constant. But having executive breakdown can be the result of taking on huge workloads. Or striving to always overachieve to meet unrealistic expectations over prolonged periods.

Now recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), executive burnout is a medical syndrome linked to chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It can be a sign of work addiction.

Work addiction is a “behavioral addiction”. Sometimes called “process addiction”, these also include such as an addiction to sex, the internet, gaming, food, exercise and shopping.

Just say no

Sometimes the driving force for work addiction is a need for the addicted person to prove themselves. This can sometimes be linked to a lack of parental love and approval in childhood.

So work achievements give them a feeling that they are approved of and loved. However, as this esteem is created from external actions rather than coming from inside – self-esteem – it can fade away as quickly as it arrived.

Then the person feels flat. So they desperately seek the next validation.

This is the sort of person who just cannot seem to say “no” at work. Even if they are asked to take on an impossible task or it means missing the weekend with their children again.

It is clear to see the connection with the “just say no” anti-drug slogan.

Sometimes due to what may look like their enthusiasm this person may get lots of promotions. Pay rises might come with that.

This boosts their esteem, but again it’s temporary and not from within. So then the vicious circle continues.

Many work addicts are high achievers. They may reach management roles, or are the owner of one or more businesses.

Sometimes this can be linked to leadership and codependency. A codependent person is looking to another person or people to give them validation, approval, recognition and an identity.

Many with a work addiction can have other addictions. For instance, to help them “relax” after long hours they might feel like they deserve a glass of wine that becomes a bottle or two every night. 

They might start using cocaine to give them the boost they think they need to keep up with the huge workload. Or they might “reward” themselves with other behavioral addictions – such as excessively shopping or eating too much to unhealthy levels or paying for sex.

What are the signs of work addiction?

  • Approval. The person’s identity is in their work and their job title. It is a way of gaining approval. Because they crave approval they will never say no to any work request.
  • Control. Work is used as a way to make it seem like everything is in an order in their life.
  • Perfectionism. They fear people will see their flaws if they’re not always perfect. So they make unreasonable demands upon themselves. If they are a boss or business owner, they may demand perfection from anyone who works for them as well.
  • Tiredness. Too many hours at work means no time to relax and often not even enough time for a healthy night’s sleep.
  • Escapism. Work is used to run away from or avoid their feelings. Frequently it is also used to avoid responsibilities to such as their children or an elderly parent. Additionally, it can be a way to avoid relationships. But any relationships that do develop are likely to suffer due to their work.
  • Coping. Working all hours can be something that’s used in an attempt to avoid depression or feelings of shame and guilt. Or to try avoiding financial worries or other concerns.
  • Justification. They will often justify their excessive working hours and preoccupation by such as saying if they can only achieve such as this or that, then they will slow down. Or that they have to work as much as they do so they can provide for and buy things for their partner and/or children (when what their partner and children most likely really want is almost always more time with them).
  • Obsession. A workaholic will nearly always be thinking or talking about their work, during any rare moments when they are not working.
  • Compulsion. A work addict cannot seem to stop themselves from doing work or working longer than they planned. They will often stop taking vacations, justifying it by saying they love their work so much they don’t want a vacation. If they do take a vacation they will take their work with them.
  • Defensive. If anyone suggests they need a vacation or that they are working too much they will get extremely defensive. This is in the same manner that an alcoholic might if someone says they are drinking too much.
  • Dishonesty. They may tell lies about their work habits and exaggerate any successes as well as deny any failures. They might start to lie to themselves about all of this too.

Are you a work addict?

Developed by psychologists in 2012 the Bergen Work Addiction Scale is used to identify workaholism. It came about after testing 12,000 Norwegian workers from 25 industries.

It uses seven basic criteria to identify work addiction, where all items are scored: (1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Always. If you answer “often” or “always” to at least four of these, you might have a work addiction.

  • 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 and 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 exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

There are many treatments to deal with stress, anxiety and executive burnout as well as work addiction. This includes our specialized 10-day Executive Treatment and our 30-90 Day Personalized Treatment Program.

We also have several other treatment options that we will be delighted to discuss to find the best way to help you or someone you care about. Contact our friendly professional team today to find out what we can do.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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