Work ‘addiction’ on the rise?

By Ami Albernaz
November 1st, 2010

We all know someone we could classify as a workaholic – maybe that person works 70-hour weeks or never seems to take a vacation. Now, the topic of work addiction – working excessively and working compulsively – is receiving more attention, partly because of stresses it can place on family life and on physical and mental health.

Although people might be skeptical about whether work addiction really exists – after all, some people have to work long hours or simply enjoy working – the defining characteristic is working to relieve feelings of anxiety or guilt that come from not working. Other tell-tale signs include working on weekends and holidays, an inability to delegate, basing self-esteem on work performance and focusing on work to the detriment of personal relationships.

“I think there’s a group of people who might have a highly developed superego, an inner voice that pushes them and requires them to always be productive, so that they’re not allowed to relax, to take time off,” says Kenneth Kraft, Ph.D., a Boston psychologist who consults with corporations. “They always have to be doing, rather than being. They’re defining themselves through their work and everything is about performance and goal-orientation.”

Unlike other addictions that involve risk-taking, compulsive working is more like an addiction to having control, Kraft points out. Clinging to work can allow a person to sidestep emotional engagements, which can be difficult and unpredictable, and maintain a sense of solace in a domain where they have more control.

While some who work too much may do so because they’re good at their jobs and get a sense of gratification from them that they don’t get in other areas of their lives, others might feel inadequate in their work and try to overcompensate, says Carl Hindy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Nashua, N.H.

“They may fear losing their job,” he says. “Giving 150 percent seems like a hedge against failure. While they might not enjoy [their job] so much, they’re willing to give-up a certain degree of happiness, perhaps, in order to obtain a great sense of future security.”

The down economy may also play a role, Kraft acknowledges, as some people feel they have to take on more responsibility in order to keep their jobs.

“Companies have downsized and are requiring more of their employees,” he says. “People work more hours because they don’t want to lose their jobs. I think these factors are definitely considerations.”

In a culture (i.e., Western culture) that values hard work and long hours, getting a handle on the prevalence of work addiction is no easy feat. According to the International Labour Organisation, a United Nations agency, eight percent of the working population devotes more than 12 hours per day to their job to escape from personal problems. In Japan, the prevalence of compulsive working has been estimated at 20 percent.

It can be tricky, though, to draw the line between a hard worker and a workaholic.

“Some people are work-oriented,” Kraft says. “People have different styles … Though if your life is 100 percent work or even 80 percent work, you’re looking at a more serious problem.”

Two things to consider are personal balance – which is, of course, defined differently by different people – and the messages you tell yourself.

“If someone has a harsh attitude toward himself and feels he’s not allowed to relax, they have to be productive. They have to recognize that voice is operating to their detriment,” he says. (In other words, if you’re someone who thinks about work while on vacation, rather than dreaming about vacation while at work, you may want to evaluate that tendency).

It helps to try to understand where these messages came from and to challenge them, Kraft adds. As a psychologist, “you could ask the question, what would life be like if you weren’t doing this? How would you cope with things?” he says. “They might say, I wouldn’t know how to deal with my relationships, my feelings… It would be uncomfortable and awkward. They would have to learn new things and look at themselves and see how life could be.”

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