Workaholics May Be At Greater Risk For These Psychiatric Disorders

If you’re clocking long hours at work, missing special events to meet pressing deadlines or think and talk incessantly about your latest project, you’ve probably been accused of being a “workaholic.”

This might seem as innocuous as being accused of chocaholism, but it might be a sign that you have an actual psychiatric disorder, according to new research. And a complex mix of our celebrated 24-hour work culture and attachment to devices makes it even harder to recognize workaholism or the psychiatric disorders it may be linked to. 

According to new a new study from workaholism experts at the University of Bergen in Norway, if you find yourself frequently working more than you initially intended, set side exercise and leisure for work, and work so much that your health has suffered, you might be more likely to meet the criteria for certain psychiatric disorders. 

The study found a link between workaholism and disorders like ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression, and the researchers believe that signs of workaholism may mask these other conditions. If their work is confirmed with additional studies, it could give doctors a way to address disorders masked by workaholism, according to lead researcher Cecilie Schou Andreassen. Alternately, future researchers could find that workaholism may actually cause these psychiatric conditions. 

“In order to prevent workaholism [from] developing, there is a need to identify factors involved with this compulsive work pattern – especially since modern technology (i.e., laptops, tablets, smartphones) has blurred the natural lines between home and the workplace,” Schou Andreassen wrote in her study.

‘Workaholism’ may be in the eye of the beholder

Researchers aren’t in agreement about how to define workaholism. Some think that it describes someone who works a lot but doesn’t enjoy what they do. Others argue that a workaholic can also be someone who is really enthusiastic about what they do.

The researchers of the new study defined it as “being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation, [and] investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas.”

But just because a person works long hours, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are addicted to work, said Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor and workaholism researcher at Royal Holloway University of London who was not involved in the study.

“It has to be a habit,” Hamermesh said. “You’ve got to work … and even though you keep on saying I’m going to quit, you don’t because you’re addicted to it.”

Additionally, just because someone isn’t at the office, that doesn’t mean they aren’t preoccupied with work-related thoughts that interfere with their life or relationships.

How workaholism and psychiatric disorders are linked

Schou Andreassen canvassed about 16,400 workers in online surveys to measure traits of workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders. She measured workaholism by asking participants to score themselves on a scale ranging from 1 (“never”) to 5 (“always”) on these questions:

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

Those who answered at least four questions with a score of four or five were classified as workaholics. 

In all, about 7.8 percent of the sample qualified as workaholics, in line with her past research that found that 8.3 percent of Norwegian adults are workaholics.

She then scored their answers on surveys about adult ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression. Schou Andreassen found that people who were addicted to work were significantly more likely to meet criteria for ADHD, OCD anxiety and depression. These psychiatric conditions could feed certain people’s drive to work excessively, she hypothesized in her study.

For instance, people with ADHD might have a hard time concentrating with others around them and thus wait until after hours to get most of their work done. People with OCD, on the other hand, tend to obsess over details “to the point of paralysis” — another behavior that may feed workaholism. Anxiety and depression in general also increase the risk of developing addictive behaviors, and the praise people with anxiety or depression get from their work performance could help boost low self esteem, she wrote.

People who scored high on measures of workaholism were also more likely to be young, single, female, highly educated and have higher socioeconomic status than the general group. In terms of the work itself, they were also more likely to be managers, self-employed and people who worked in the private sector.

The study was published in the open-access journal PLOS One

The difference between America and Norway

Malissa Clark, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology and expert on workaholism at the University of Georgia, said studies like this are sorely needed in order to understand workaholism and its effect on mental health.

However, the fact that all the participants were from Norway makes it difficult to consider what it might mean for American workaholics, Clark pointed out. People in Norway work an average of 34 hours a week, while Americans work an average of 39 hours a week. Norwegians also have a right to a minimum four weeks and one day of paid vacation as well as paid parental leave for up to 47 weeks, while Americans have no federal entitlements to either benefit. Judging from these policy differences, said Clark, Norwegians have a very different concept of work-life balance compared to American workers, which could prevent us from generalizing the results among a U.S. population.

What to do if you think you work too much

Schou Andreassen suggests there are some practical ways to prevent workaholism in people who are at higher risk for it.

For one, workplaces should help young adults and managers suppress workaholic tendencies by promoting a positive work-life balance. And while there isn’t enough evidence to support the notion that certain therapies may work to curb workaholism, Schou Andreassen writes that perhaps validated interventions used for other addictions, like psychotherapy, medication, stress and time management and mindfulness meditation, may help change workaholic behavior.

In addition to professional help, workaholics can also reach out to their supervisor for help curbing some of their most harmful behaviors, Clark suggested. 

“Because workaholics often work more than what is expected of them, their supervisor may become accustomed to getting a response late into the night or on the weekends,” she explained. “However, if the workaholic is looking to change their behaviors, they could communicate to their boss the specific times they will be available to respond to work issues (e.g., they could say they will no longer be responding to emails after 10pm or on the weekends).”

Hopefully, Clark concluded, future researchers can embark on long-term studies to gain insight into which condition comes first: workaholism or mental health problems? That can then lead to treatments for workaholism. 

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