What Is Work Addiction?

Work addiction is hard to define, with the line between a hard worker and somebody with a genuine issue being exceptionally difficult to pin down. There is currently no accepted definition of a workaholic, but the overall picture is relatively similar to other addictions: somebody who continually and compulsively works but derives little to no pleasure from it and even suffers from “withdrawal” when he or she isn’t working would be classed as a work addict. Workaholics have also been noted to be more likely to be perfectionists and to avoid delegating responsibility to others, instead preferring to work extensively on projects, well past the point of necessity. It’s similar to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in some ways, according to experts.

The psychological underpinnings of work addiction primarily relate to low self-esteem: people trying much harder in their jobs because they somehow don’t feel “good enough.” For this issue, having pushy parents who want high levels of success from their children is associated with developing work addiction. However, a lot of workaholics have dysfunctional families—for example, with one or two parents struggling with addiction themselves—and are thought to be looking for a way to stay in control by working excessively.

How Society Encourages Us to Become Workaholics

There is an undeniable and unpleasant truth about work addiction: hard workers are looked upon very positively in our society. We often brag to each other about how we worked overtime or how we got up so early in the morning—or stayed up through the night—to get a project completed. About 10 percent of people are expected to actually be workaholics, but in a Canadian survey, a huge 27 percent said they were workaholics, including 22 percent of those with no income.

Why do more people want to be workaholics than could realistically have the condition? Bryan Robinson, PhD, one of the leading experts on the condition, called it “the best-dressed mental health problem,” and the issue appears to be that clothing ourselves in this label makes us look good to friends, family and employers.

However, one thing we often don’t appreciate is that work is a means to an end. We need to live, so we work to earn money to facilitate our survival. In the past, work meant building or farming—directly contributing to our food and shelter—but that isn’t the case anymore; now it’s less direct and arguably less necessary.

Throughout history, people have predicted the modern world would be a much less busy place. Benjamin Franklin predicted we’d move to a four hour work week. In 1933, the Senate passed a bill mandating a 30-hour work week, but it was vetoed by President Roosevelt. In the 1960s, it was predicted that the workers of the new millennium would work 14 hours a week. None of these predictions have come to pass, despite making perfect sense in a world where more and more jobs can be automated.

We’re actually working longer hours and taking fewer vacations than we used to. According to U.S. Census data, the percentage of men working over 48 hours a week has increased in the past 25 years, and a recent study suggests that the average worker now puts in 20 percent more hours than in 1970. A 2007 survey put the average U.S. workweek at 54 hours, with only 14 percent working 40 hours or less. Only 38 percent of workers take their full, allocated vacation time. The statistics come in many forms, but this gets the point across nicely: medieval peasants worked less than you do.

We’re happy to do this because we believe that hard work will get us where we want to be, but the realities of economic inequality and decreasing job satisfaction shoot that hypothesis in the foot. We encourage over-working—for example, employers often mistake those suffering from work addiction as “hard workers” and praise or promote them—but we don’t get the results we want. Using an analogy from another form of addiction: we’re being told “take this drug every day, it’ll make you happier,” but we don’t realize that it’s making us dependent on something that only does us harm.

What’s the Harm in Work Addiction?

There are abundant downsides to work addiction, with the most obvious being that our interpersonal relationships—with spouses, families and friends—get cast aside to fit in more hours. Spouses of workaholics are more likely to be unhappy with their marriages, according to research. Other problems identified in studies include depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, weight gain and sleep problems. Children of workaholics also score over 70 percent higher on measures of depression. The Japanese have a word, “karoshi,” literally meaning “death by overwork,” and it’s estimated to be responsible for 1,000 deaths per year in that country, as well as one in 20 stroke and heart attack deaths among those under 60.

The biggest irony is that working too hard actually makes you worse at your job. By taking on too much responsibility, spending too long looking for perfection and refusing to ask for help, work addicts tend to struggle to stay organized and generally end up more inefficient than a less “hard worker.”

Recognize Work Addiction and Take It Seriously

So the “best dressed mental health problem” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We might not have a clear definition yet, but if you’re working more evenings and weekends, skipping social activities to work more, feel like you’re always “catching up,” find yourself doing two things at once (eating and reading a report, for instance) and always have many “irons in the fire,” there’s a good chance you’re cultivating a work addiction. If this sounds like you—even if your bosses seem happy—take the problem seriously and find some help to enable you to regain control and safeguard your long-term happiness.


Choose a better life. Choose recovery.