Addicted or highly engaged? How to identify a Work Addict and the red flags for those most at risk. Work Addiction (Part 2)
Before we plunge into the characteristics of Work Addiction and how to go about identifying those most at risk, let’s first cover off what we know from the research (and for the benefit of those who can’t relate to the notion of work being actually addictive?)
Is work really addictive? Like drug dependency or alcohol abuse?
Yes, you bet it is. For some individuals, working excessively is most certainly NOT a merely transient behaviour but a true addiction with its own causes and symptoms.
Workaholism studies have been a focus for occupational health, psychiatric and addiction medicine since the 1960s, and in more recent years research by organisational psychologists and organisational management scientists has burgeoned.
At risk of doing a grave disservice to this substantial body of research but in the interests of being appropriately brief for the purposes of this article, to qualify as an addiction 6 core symptoms must be present:
- Salience (preoccupation)
- Tolerance (much needs more)
- Mood modification (as a consequence of using/doing)
- Conflict (gets in the way of other important things/people)
- Withdrawal (discomfort at stopping)
- Relapse (difficulty abstaining).
When examined against these criteria, workaholism and work addiction studies demonstrate substantial clinical relevance supported by more than 50 years of research including academic, anecdotal data, case studies, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Plus several decades of ‘Workaholics Anonymous’ operating in many countries around the world including throughout Australia, New Zealand, UK, Japan, Germany, Sweden, USA and Canada (Atroszko and Griffiths, 2017; Griffiths et al., 2018; Robinson, 2014).
How to tell if someone is addicted: The 5 characteristics of Work Addiction
“I’m not addicted! I’m highly engaged with my work at all times.”
- Is pervasive in a person’s thoughts
- Overrides the rest of their life
- Stops them attending to other priorities
- Contributes to relationship difficulties
- Is a habit they feel lost without
… such individuals are most accurately described not merely as ‘engaged with’ their work but as ‘addicted to’ their work.
And furthermore, when downtime is actively enforced and a workaholic is deprived of their work ‘fix,’ a state of distress akin to the psychological symptoms of withdrawal or detox associated with any form of addiction may occur (Andreassen & Pallesen, 2016).
Work addiction has both a cognitive component (having a preoccupation with, constantly thinking about or craving to do work) and a behavioural component (working excessively and working compulsively); and the experience of being a work-addict underpins problematic behaviours, which ultimately leads to severe deterioration across many aspects of life and work functioning (although this usually requires lengthy periods of time before observations of substantial and unequivocal harm can be attributed to it).
When work is a band-aid for something else…
The affective (feeling) side to work-addiction is not clear cut and it is unclear whether a true work addict derives low or high enjoyment from their experiences. However, it is known that using work to regulate mood can lead to prolonged and progressive loss of control over how much and how hard one must work to achieve the same mood regulation (whether pleasure or relief). This is particularly the case when working excessively is being used as a coping strategy for another underlying disorder (e.g., anxiety, OCD, depression) and, as is often the case with other addicts, workaholics may be unaware or unwilling to acknowledge their dependency or how their ‘habit’ minimises, avoids or contributes to other challenges (Robinson, 2014).
Despite these advancements in the conceptualization and investigation of the practical consequences of work addiction and the enormous suffering and costs with which it is associated, work addiction has not (yet?) been formally recognized as a clinical disorder in the health diagnostic and classification systems.
Are some people at higher risk of Work Addiction?
Individuals with certain dispositional traits are believed to be at higher risk of developing workaholism. Moreover, it’s clear these internal individual factors can be exacerbated by the presence of certain work factors in their role and/or the workplace culture and environment.
Again, I am at risk of grossly oversimplifying decades of scientific research but for the purposes of this article here is a quick synopsis of the key findings of factors which have been found to increase the risk of workaholism:
Internal Factors: Individual dispositional traits
- Strong extrinsic work motivation
- Anxious, high achieving or ‘Type A’ personalities, with self-critical traits and/or a negative emotional orientation
- Fear of failure
- Reluctance to delegate or rely on others,
- Highly conscientious and persevering “do-ers”.
Clinically, links with low self-esteem, narcissism and obsessive-compulsiveness/OCD have been suggested.
External Factors: Work environment / job role
⚠️ heavy workloads
⚠️ an overload of job demands
⚠️ increased time commitment invested in the role
⚠️ increase paid/unpaid overtime hours performed
⚠️ interpersonal conflicts at work
⚠️ role conflicts at work, and
⚠️ a work climate characterised by overwork
And those ‘dying for the cause’
More controversially, some studies also indicate the presence of strong positive leadership and organisational commitment may support or even facilitate a workaholic’s excessive involvement with work. Employees working in highly purpose-led roles and organisations who exhibit some of the individual precursors to workaholism are believed to be at higher risk of developing workaholism – ‘dying for the cause’.
Similarly, for some segments of the workforce, strongly ESR/CSR oriented organisations may be incubators for work addiction.
As these findings are widely reported, it follows logically that there is an expectation of and obligation on employers to proactively consider what reasonable accommodations and protections should be in place to mitigate the risks of workaholism for their employees.
Next up, Part #3 in our Work Addiction series: When the guard rails come down and no one is watching. What working from home means for Work Addiction.
Audrey McGibbon is a Chartered Occupational & Registered Psychologist with over 30 years public and private sector specialist experience in Australia, UK and across the Asia Pacific. Audrey is the CEO of EEK & SENSE, an independent research, assessment and advisory firm who operate at the intersection of leadership, culture and wellbeing.
In collaboration with the University of Melbourne, the research undertaken by Audrey and her team at EEK & SENSE using their proprietary model and psychometric measure of leader wellbeing – the Global Leadership Wellbeing Survey (GLWS) is contributing new and valuable information to both the science and practice of employee wellbeing.
For more than 10 years, Audrey has researched and pioneered groundbreaking advancements in the field of leader wellbeing – proving that such a construct exists as a real entity, that it can be reliably measured and developed, that being in a leadership or highly demanding professional role can be both good and bad for our wellbeing, and that leaders’ wellbeing has a ripple effect on the culture and wellbeing of their people.
Audrey holds a number of industry and professional advisory roles and is an increasingly prominent voice on the global employee wellbeing stage. Audrey is currently completing her professional doctorate (PhD) in Organizational Psychology with Birkbeck College, University of London, UK, where she is researching the relationship between workaholism, hybrid work patterns and specific job-demands/resources.
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