Workaholics have these toxic behaviors in common

When does a hard worker become a workaholic?

Originally Published: 
The actor Jeremy Strong playing Kendall Roy in the HBO series succession, on his phone, is a good ex...

Sleep when you're dead. Rise and grind. Go the extra mile. These mantras of modern life characterize an increasingly pervasive “hustle culture,” where overtime and no days off have become the norm. But when does giving “110 percent” go from a socially valued habit to a dangerous pattern with serious costs?

When does a hard worker become a workaholic?

That's the question scientists sought to answer in a 2017 study spanning 50 years of organizational psychology research on workaholism. The researchers aren't interested in “overpathologizing a common and often positive behavior such as work,” the team writes in the study.

Rather, they hope to outline the clinical characteristics of workaholics so this group can get the help they need to avoid negative downstream effects on their lives.

It's less about preventing Sex and the City’s Miranda Hobbes from poring over a pressing legal brief every blue moon, but rather more about helping Succession’s Kendall Roy avoid compulsively answering work emails at 4 a.m.

Understanding the perils of chronic overextension at work can help everyone — workaholic or not — become happier, healthier, and more productive.

I'm Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

Work on the brain — Workaholism isn't a new concept. In fact, minister and psychologist Wayne Oates coined the term in 1971, describing a worker who feels the “compulsion to work incessantly.”

It's a “person whose need for work has become so excessive that it creates noticeable disturbance or interference with his bodily health, personal happiness, and interpersonal relations, and with his smooth social functioning,” Oates writes.

Workaholics aren't people who simply work long hours or devote extra energy to their job. It's people who sacrifice other parts of their life — their well-being or personal life — because they simply can't stop working.

This isn't a tiny fraction of all workers. Scientists estimate 10 percent of the United States adult population are workaholics. Researchers have seen similar numbers in Japan, Australia, South Africa, and South Korea.

Workaholics have the “compulsion to work incessantly.”

Workaholism is distinct from substance abuse or dependence. It has totally different legal consequences, risks of physical harm, and pathways to dependence. Instead, it's a behavioral addiction, similar to the way people become addicted to porn, gambling, or the internet.

Interestingly, workaholism comes with benefits and tradeoffs. Workaholism may at first induce pleasure, then later limit one’s social life, induce subjective emotional pain and feelings of “burnout”— and may even lead to dangerous actions like driving recklessly while on the phone or while being sleep deprived, researchers say.

However, workaholics may simultaneously get praise, promotions, and salary increases from employers for their dedication. These positives and social approval can make reversing workaholism tricky.

The science of workaholism — As of now, workaholism isn't included as a diagnostic category in the DSM, the psychiatric handbook that guides clinical protocol. But in the 2017 study, scientists detail a new, comprehensive definition of workaholism and outline the clinical attributes to be eventually incorporated in the DSM.

The team defines workaholism as a “clinical condition that is characterized by both externalizing (i.e., addiction) and internalizing (i.e., obsessive-compulsive) symptoms and by low levels of work engagement.”

The researchers split engaged and disengaged workaholics. Engaged workers show high work engagement and low levels of addiction and obsessive-compulsive symptoms, the team writes. This group is functional, while disengaged workaholics show the opposite tendencies and suffer from the negative effects of workaholism.

Ultimately, these researchers speculate you could go into your psychiatrist's office and be diagnosed — and treated — for disengaged workaholism.

How to stop the cycle — To get a sense of your propensity for workaholism, you can use the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. It uses seven basic criteria to identify work addiction, where all items are scored on the following scale: (1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Always:

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

If you score often or always on at least four of the seven items, it may suggest you are a workaholic.

Summary of significant outcomes of workaholism. A positive sign (+) indicates a significant positive relationship with workaholism, a negative sign (-) indicates a significant negative relationship, and ns indicates a nonsignificant relationship.

Adapted from Clark, Michel, Zhdanova, Pui & Baltes (in press).

If you find yourself edging towards workaholism — if a partner starts complaining about your work habits' strain on the relationship or you're experiencing signs of burnout — there are ways to transform your habits.

While no documented treatment for workaholism exists, there are some strategies you can try:

  1. Recharge: Research shows long work hours alone don't necessarily hijack health and well-being. Rather, it's the inability to stop thinking about work that's problematic. Unplugging and unwinding when you're off the clock can help you replenish energy reserves to create a healthy work-life balance.
  2. Set boundaries: Creating a clearer time to start and stop work is crucial to developing a sustainable routine. This can be especially hard while working from home or in close proximity to the computer. Designating a specific workspace can also help create that separation.
  3. Talk it out: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most well-documented and effective treatment approach for behavioral addictions, including workaholism. This form of therapy can help people turn negative emotional reactions to certain scenarios into more constructive and positive feelings. The process can also help pinpoint the root motivating factor behind the incessant need to work.

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