A hidden obsession that can control your life

By: Malcolm Wilhelm

As we all continue to bounce back from the economic effects of a global pandemic, many of us have had to work harder than usual to keep up with life’s many responsibilities. For some of us, this might mean picking up that dreaded weekend shift or staying later than we ever would. Others have needed to find a second job to keep up with all the bills that can quickly pile up. Whatever your reason may be for putting in that extra effort at work, that impulse can quickly become an unquenchable thirst that spirals into a full-blown addiction to work. By learning to recognize the early warning signs,  you can take the steps needed to tackle the problem head on and take back control of your life.

What Does It Mean To Be Addicted To Working?

We are all familiar with the concept of addictive behaviours — oftentimes, it’s used in a casual sense to describe actions we recognize as excessive. Some of us say we are addicted to chocolate or ice cream if we have a bit more than we’re proud to admit, but this isn’t what we mean when we talk about work addiction.

Another term that we may all be more familiar with is workaholic. Many people use the term generically to refer to someone who enjoys working excessively. However, the term ‘workaholic’ was first used by American psychologist Wayne Oates in 1971, who defined it as an uncontrollable and insatiable compulsion to work. That obsessive compulsion to work is a key characteristic of a workaholic but there really is no agreed-upon consensus definition of what it means to be work-addicted.

While work addiction is not classified as a recognized disorder in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), many researchers have attempted to define it and outline what it means to be a work addict. Some traits that researchers believe define work addiction include (Sussman 2):

  • Spending excessive amounts of time on work related activities
  • Working far more than what is required in their normal duties 
  • Spending their free time obsessing over work

Another useful way to understand work addiction is to think of it affecting both your behaviour and your psychological well-being. Behavioural changes lead to working harder than you normally would, taking on longer hours, and sacrificing your downtime. Meanwhile, your psychological well-being is impacted by the constant preoccupation or obsession with your work –even when you have free time, you experience a strong compulsion to work and anxiety at the thought of not working (Taris et al. 154).

Recognizing The Symptoms of Work Addiction (vs. Workaholism)

It is important to distinguish between genuine work addiction and what we might call someone who simply overworks themselves. There is a meaningful difference between the two as a person who works long hours may not have a compulsion to work or an inability to detach from work in their off time. Because “workaholic” can have such a general meaning, it is best to distinguish it from genuine work addiction.

There is a helpful tool that was created to assess if you have work addiction. The Bergen Work Addiction Scale was developed after studying thousands of workers in Norway and narrowed down several factors that identify work addiction (Lichtenstein et al. 146). To identify these factors, various statements about work are provided and the individual decides how strongly they identify with them.

  • Do you think of how to free up more time to work?
  • Do you spend more time working than you had planned?
  • Do you work to ease feelings of anxiety, guilt, depression or helplessness?
  • Have you ignored others advice to cut down on work?
  • Do you become stressed when you are unable to work?
  • Do you prioritize your work over your hobbies and exercise?
  • Do you work so much that it has begun to affect your health in a negative way?

Answering in the affirmative to 4 or more of these questions indicate that you have an addiction to working.

Consequences of Work Addiction

While the consequences of this addiction may not be as obvious as drug or gambling addictions, the harmful health repercussions of being addicted to work can impact both your mental health and your physical health. For starters, one study has found that those with high levels of work addiction have increased perceived stress and score significantly lower on quality of life metrics (Lichtenstein et al. 148).

A multitude of studies have found a connection between work addiction and severe depression which can often manifest in physical symptoms as well. However, the most striking physical consequences of work addiction is the increased risk of disease. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death worldwide and work addiction has been shown to increase the chances of developing  cardiovascular disease. In fact, extreme engagement in work can sometimes lead to cardiac-related sudden death (Griffiths et al. 847).

The consequences of work addiction also extend beyond the individual’s personal health. Oftentimes, the family of the work addict can suffer just as much, if not more than the individual themselves. This can manifest in marital breakdown as your distance drives a wedge between you and your spouse, and between you and your children (Griffiths et al. 848). Meanwhile, social relationships are difficult to cultivate and maintain as you grow increasingly more isolated until your workplace is the only place you feel at home (Griffiths et al. 848).

How To Recover From Work Addiction

As with any addiction, the first step is to realize you need help in dealing with this problem. You might feel embarrassed to admit you are addicted to working, or you may try to rationalize the problem by believing that work addiction still produces some positive outcomes, but this is not the case. Once you have decided that you truly wish to work on this problem, your next step is to seek out help. There are various resources available online to help you understand your work addiction and how it might manifest in your life. However, it is important to seek out professional help in the form of therapy or counselling. Look in your area for therapists that specialize in work addiction who can help you understand the various feelings that your work addiction may have been compensating for.

Some treatments that have proven to be successful in treating work addiction are (Holland 11):

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy:

The main premise of CBT is to recognize and identify maladaptive cognitive patterns that shape and influence behavioural problems and emotional turmoil (Hofmann 427). These dysfunctional thought patterns can take the form of schemas and universal beliefs the individual holds about themselves, the world, and events. Treating issues involves figuring out what maladaptive cognition the individual holds that is directly leading to the behaviour or emotion in question, and then changing that maladaptive cognition through conscious effort. CBT dates back to the 1960s and 1970s; since then, there have been many disorder-specific CBT protocols. Studies have shown it can be very effective in regulating stress, employment-related stress, and associated behaviours (Hofmann 432).  In treating work addiction, CBT typically aims to find the underlying cognitive error that is leading to escaping normal life responsibilities through work. This will vary across individuals, but working with a trained CBT therapist can help discover the root causes of your work addiction (Holland 11).

Relaxation/Mindfulness Training: 

Relaxation and mindfulness techniques are meant to foster a change in the emotional and conscious state of the individual. Mindfulness specifically is based on traditional Buddhist meditative principles. It involves guiding the individual to remain mindful of the thoughts in their mind; how they influence emotional states; and how to empty the mind to alleviate emotional states (Feldman 1002-1006). Mindfulness is often used as an umbrella term referring to various forms of meditative stress reducing techniques achieving the goal in a variety of ways such as mindful breathing and loving-kindness affirmative meditations. Relaxation techniques focus primarily on ways to relax the physical body at will, training the individual’s muscle control until they can relax any muscle in their body when needed. Both techniques have shown substantial benefits in reducing stress, anxiety and restlessness and which technique you choose to treat work addiction depends on individual differences and which emotions you might be struggling with most. These techniques are also often used in conjunction with CBT for greater results (Feldman et al. 1003)

Assertiveness Training: 

This technique is a behavioural therapy with similar principles to CBT. It has fallen out of popularity in favour of other therapies such as psychotherapy or CBT, but studies show it remains highly effective for many individuals (Speed et al. 1-3). The goal of assertiveness therapy is to help an individual to better communicate and choose actions that are in their best interest. In other words, it trains an individual to stand up for themselves when necessary and to do so without feeling guilty or anxious about it (Speed et al. 4). Similar to CBT, finding the underlying cause of the unassertiveness and rectifying it is also crucial. As assertiveness training has been shown to be useful in decreasing anxiety and improving self-esteem, it can give the individual back a sense of control in their lives and the ability to conquer their work addiction depending on the root causes of it (Speed et al. 8).

Existential Values: 

For some people, work addiction is a means to fill a void in their lives to combat the emptiness they may feel. Healing from a work addiction for some may involve delving into spiritual values or existential ideas (Holland 11). There are many therapeutic methods that focus on existential values such as positive psychology and existential psychology. These help the individual discover the core values of their lives and how to achieve those values despite the limitations they possess, so they can achieve a truly meaningful life while understanding that failure and struggles are an integral piece of the puzzle (Wong 573-576). This approach is much more of a holistic approach dealing with a person’s psychological issues, social interactions, and spirituality. Other individuals may find similar results by turning to religion or spiritual practices in general. 

Whether you believe you are work addicted or you think someone you care about is heading down that path, it is crucial to educate yourself to recognize the symptoms and warning signs. As with any addiction, it will require perseverance to overcome but don’t let that discourage you. The first step is always the toughest but rest assured there is light at the end of the tunnel if you take care of your mental health and well-being. 


Workaholics Anonymous

Works Cited

Feldman, Greg, et al. “Differential Effects of Mindful Breathing, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and Loving-Kindness Meditation on Decentering and Negative Reactions to Repetitive Thoughts.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 48, 2010, pp. 1002–11.

Griffiths, Mark D., et al. “Ten Myths about Work Addiction.” Journal of Behavioral Addictions, vol. 7, pp. 845–57.

Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, vol. 36, 2012, pp. 427–40.

Holland, Dennis W. “Work Addiction: Costs and Solutions for Individuals, Relationships and Organizations.” Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, vol. 22, 2008, pp. 1–15.

Lichtenstein, Mia Beck, et al. “Work Addiction Is Associated with Increased Stress and Reduced Quality of Life: Validation of the Bergen Work Addiction Scale in Danish.” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, vol. 60, 2019, pp. 145–51.

Speed, Brittany C., et al. “Assertiveness Training: A Forgotten Evidence‐based Treatment.” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, vol. 25, 2018, e12216.

Sussman, Steven. “Workaholism: A Review.” Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, vol. Suppl 6, 2012, p. 4120.

Taris, Toon W., et al. “All Day and All of the Night: The Relative Contribution of Two Dimensions of Workaholism to Well-Being in Self-Employed Workers.” Work & Stress, vol. 22, 2008, pp. 153–65.

Wong, Paul T. P. “Existential Positive Psychology and Integrative Meaning Therapy.” International Review of Psychiatry, vol. 32, 2020, pp. 565–78.