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Work addiction myths, signs, symptoms, and treatments

Reading time: 9 mins
Tired working woman at a desk and two man on each side

Work addiction is a compulsive or uncontrollable urge to overwork despite negative impacts on many areas of a person’s life. People who suffer from work addiction may display signs that are indicative of the condition.

The symptoms of work addiction include working long hours even when not necessary, obsessing over work-related success, losing sleep because of work, and deteriorating personal relationships as a result of overworking.

There are several driving factors behind the condition. The most common causes of work addiction are the need to escape negative circumstances, overcompensation, a need for validation, and a belief that self-worth is tied to one’s career.

Adverse consequences may result from workaholism. The effects of work addiction include burnout, health problems, low levels of productivity, sleep disorders, and depression. The addiction does not only affect the employee but the people surrounding them as well.

What is work addiction?

Work addiction is a mental health condition characterized by excessive involvement in work that can lead to unwanted consequences. Someone with a work addiction views overworking as a positive trait and may believe that self-worth can be achieved through work.

Work addicts also tend to experience a high from working that can lead them to repeatedly engage in addictive behaviors around work, ultimately creating a strain in their lives.

When does work become an addiction?

Work becomes an addiction when the urge to work excessively goes beyond just being able to pay the bills and the person becomes unable to stop the destructive behavior despite being aware of the resulting physical and mental health problems.

Repeated engagement in addictive behavior may be triggered by a psychological high achieved from working, which may come in the form of attention and validation.

What are the causes of work addiction?

Several factors drive people to become addicted to work. The causes of work addiction are listed below.

  • Biological factors: Work addiction may be influenced by a genetic predisposition to certain addictive personality traits. Some people may have a genetic vulnerability to work addiction, including those who suffer from an inability to resist impulses. Individuals with a blood relative who is a work addict may also be at an increased risk for developing workaholism.
  • Psychological factors: include the psychological buzz achieved from working and the need to escape negative situations in life. The psychological buzz or high obtained from the workplace may come from getting great feedback from a superior, leading to feelings of pleasure and reward that make a person engage in excessive involvement in work. A person may also use work as a means of escaping negative situations in life such as financial crises and damaged personal relationships.
  • Social factors: Work addiction may stem from social factors, including workplace policies, culture, and relationships with work colleagues. Certain organizations may normalize long working hours and may consider it socially acceptable. Good workplace relationships may also contribute to work addiction as someone may feel obliged to be consistently good at work to experience more of the comfort that a work environment may offer.

What are the effects of work addiction?

Being addicted to work can negatively impact the different aspects of a person’s life. The effects of work addiction are listed below.

  • Physical effects: Work addiction can lead to health problems, including physical exhaustion, sleep problems, headaches, body pains, and an increased risk for heart disease and hypertension. These physical health effects stem from overworking and losing sleep due to preoccupation with work.
  • Psychological effects: A work addict may suffer from psychological problems, including extreme stress, mental exhaustion, anxiety, nervous breakdowns, and depression. Experiencing burnout due to mental exhaustion is common in people who suffer from work addiction and may result in the impairment of non-work relationships.
  • Short-term effects: The short-term effects of work addiction may manifest in both physical and emotional ways, including dissatisfaction with work, bursts of anger, shortness of breath, and chest pains.
  • Long-term effects: Being addicted to work has long-term negative consequences, including family conflicts, heart problems, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk for other illnesses. Over time, jobs with high demands can negatively impact a person’s overall well-being and can result in health issues.

What are the signs and symptoms of work addiction?

man working on a laptop

There are potential indicators that someone may be addicted to work. The most common signs and symptoms of work addiction are listed below.

  • Working long hours even when not necessary: Someone with a work addiction may spend more time working at the office even when not necessary. Ironically, this is often counterproductive as consistently working long hours can lead to burnout and one may eventually fall behind in their duties as a result.
  • Obsessing over work-related success: A work addict may become obsessed with achieving work-related success and may constantly worry about their performance at work.
  • Losing sleep because of work: A person may ignore the importance of sleep to meet deadlines and finish projects or tasks before turnaround time. A work addict may also develop sleep problems due to demanding work schedules and heavy workloads.
  • Working to avoid dealing with personal circumstances: A person may use work as a way of refusing to face reality and use it as an excuse to avoid dealing with personal issues such as a divorce or the loss of a loved one. 
  • Deteriorating personal relationships: As work takes up a big chunk of a person’s life, they may miss family gatherings or other important events, causing disagreements or conflicts with family members or friends.
  • Using work to cope with negative feelings: A person suffering from work addiction may use work to cope with or reduce overwhelming negative feelings such as guilt, depression, or anxiety. One may also engage in excessive work to escape or numb emotional trauma.
  • Being afraid of failing at work: A work addict may severely worry about the consequences of failing at work. Most workaholics are perfectionists who strive for flawlessness and may be embarrassed to commit work-related mistakes. As a result, they may push themselves extra hard to achieve perfection.

Other possible work addiction symptoms include:

  • Tying self-worth to a job
  • Experiencing high levels of stress in the absence of work
  • Being unable to make time for other activities outside work
  • Developing health problems due to overworking
  • Ignoring requests from family or friends to cut back on work

How to overcome work addiction?

An individual can overcome work addiction by setting healthy boundaries at work that will make it possible to achieve a work-life balance. Establishing work boundaries may start with identifying priorities in life where a big chunk of one’s time and energy should be allocated.

Communicating clearly with co-workers is also a crucial part of setting professional boundaries. Be upfront about only answering emails during office hours so that work will not end up invading your personal life.

Another important step is to keep in mind that workers have the right to a decent quality of life. This involves taking a break when necessary, spending time with your loved ones, and taking days off when sick.

What are the risk factors for work addiction?

tired woman at a desk holding her temples

Certain groups of people are more likely to develop the condition. The risk factors for work addiction are listed below.

  • Perfectionistic tendencies: People who are perfectionists are often self-critical. They tend to have unrealistically high standards and are rarely satisfied with the outcome of a task or project. As a result, perfectionists may engage in excessive work to meet personal expectations. Perfectionism can also be projected onto others, which can negatively impact colleagues’ performance at work.
  • Neuroticism: Individuals with higher levels of neuroticism are more likely to develop work addiction. Neuroticism is a tendency toward anger, anxiety, depression, and other negative feelings. Some people with a neurotic personality may work to cope with or handle feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety.
  • Family upbringing: Individuals whose parents or other blood relatives struggled with work addiction are more likely to adopt addictive behaviors around work later in life. Similarly, an individual whose parents instilled into their minds that job success is a measure of self-worth may also have problems with work addiction.
  • Conscientiousness: Highly conscientious individuals are hardworking, goal-oriented, and forward-thinking. Although conscientiousness can be a good thing, it also has its downsides. For instance, conscientious people may overwork to the point of physical and mental burnout just to make sure they meet deadlines.
  • Hustle culture: a cultural norm in which overemphasis is given on work and productivity. This tends to normalize working extra hard to meet the demands of one’s job. Some people may work beyond their physical and mental capacity to comply with the norm.

How do you treat work addiction?

Work addiction can be treated by seeking out help from a mental health professional. Treatment options for work addiction may include therapy programs, support groups, inpatient treatment, outpatient rehabilitation programs, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Therapy programs can be individual, in groups, or with families. In work addiction therapies, a trained professional helps a struggling person understand the root causes behind the compulsive need to overwork. Counseling sessions also help repair damaged relationships with family members or friends that resulted from work addiction.

Some people may benefit from support groups such as Workaholics Anonymous, which is a 12-step program for people who share the same experiences and struggles with overworking. Inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs may be more helpful in severe cases of work addiction. Inpatient therapy allows a person to stay inside a facility throughout recovery while outpatient programs provide a more flexible treatment option that allows people to continue with their daily lives while receiving outpatient care.

Behavioral approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help work addicts change thoughts and beliefs that lead them to engage in excessive work. CBT is also helpful in teaching people better coping strategies which can help reduce the urge to overwork.

When is work addiction counseling necessary?

Work addiction counseling is necessary when making connections about how personal situations may have contributed to ongoing problems with excessive work. In identifying incidents and events which may have exacerbated work addiction, the core issues that increase one’s vulnerability to the condition can be addressed.

Counseling can also provide help for people who have a dual diagnosis, or those who live with both an addiction and a mental health illness. Work addiction can result from and exist alongside a psychological disorder. Similarly, addiction can also cause mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression.

What are the symptoms of work addiction withdrawal?

The symptoms of work addiction withdrawal include moodiness, increased irritability, depression, high levels of stress, and anxiety. Withdrawal symptoms are often experienced in the absence of work or whenever work addicts are prevented from working.

These signs of withdrawal are also seen in other forms of addiction and are considered as one of the core components that make workaholism a potential addiction.

What are the myths about work addiction?

man at a desk with hands buried in his hair and another man standing next to him

The myths of work addiction prove that although there is a growing body of research about work addiction, there is still a lack of scientific consensus about the topic. One of the most common myths surrounding work addiction is that it is a new behavioral addiction when in fact, the condition has been studied for decades.

Another myth talks about work addiction and workaholism being the same entity. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, workaholism is generally seen as something praiseworthy rather than alarming. Personality traits being the lone factors behind work addiction is also a misconception. The truth is that aside from personality traits, a complex interplay of different factors, including organizational culture, job demands, and the workplace environment also contribute to work addiction.

Moreover, the idea that work addiction only has psychosocial consequences is untrue. Evidence exists that the condition can cause life-threatening physical illnesses. Another prevalent myth is that work addiction only develops in adulthood when in reality, study addiction reported in students has been identified in research as a precursor to work addiction.

A claim also exists that some forms of work addiction are considered positive. However, any activity that qualifies as addiction has long-term effects that will outweigh any supposed short-term benefits. Lastly, the claim that work addiction is a temporary behavior influenced by situational factors may be a myth, as there is evidence of the persistence of excessive work in some individuals. However, more research is needed to determine prevalence rates.

What are the impacts of work addiction on the family?

Work addiction has negative impacts on an individual’s family life, including alienation, feelings of abandonment, lack of time for family members, and family conflicts. As work takes over a person’s life, they can easily isolate themselves from other family members to allot more time for work.

A strong correlation exists between work addiction and family functioning. Spouses or children of work addicts may feel alienated or abandoned. Focusing a significant amount of one’s energy on establishing a career may also result in a lack of time for family members. This ultimately causes frequent arguing, disagreements, and other family conflicts.

What are the impacts of work addiction on mental health?

Work addiction can negatively impact mental health as it can both cause and exacerbate certain psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Work addiction and mental health influence each other. For instance, burnout caused by physical and mental exhaustion from overworking can lead to dissatisfaction at work.

For work addicts who are often perfectionists and are fueled by job success, this can lead to strong feelings of anxiety and depression. Similarly, people who live with mental health conditions may use work as a means of escaping or coping with negative emotions.

What are the statistics about work addiction?

Statistics about work addiction indicate its prevalence among employed individuals, death rates, and relevant associations with age. Researchers estimate that work addiction affects 10% of American workers while other estimates indicate that as much as 15-25% of the population have problems with overworking.

Work-related deaths are also rising. The most recent available data reveals that around 270 U.S. employees committed suicide due to workplace issues, with stress believed to be a major driving factor. A StressPulseSurvey suggests that excessive workload and interpersonal issues are the leading causes of stress in the workplace.

A 2014 study by Cecilie Schou Andreassen and colleagues revealed that among Norwegian employees, workaholism was positively associated with individuals aged 18-31 years and 32-45 years.

Work addiction has damaging impacts on the physical, emotional, and social aspects of a person’s life.  From an increased risk of physical illnesses to co-occurring mental health disorders and damaged personal relationships, work addiction can cause lasting problems that can make daily living more difficult.