Workaholism Facts: Signs, Symptoms, and Effects of Workaholism

48% of Americans consider themselves to be workaholics. This makes work addiction the most prevalent form of addiction today. While it might sound benign, workaholism can have quite a few negative consequences and harm a person’s well-being.

In this guide, we’ll talk about what workaholism is, discuss the most important facts surrounding workaholism derived from addiction research, explain how you can recognize a workaholic, and recommend strategies you can use to stop being a workaholic.

What is workaholism?

According to Wayne E. Oates, an American psychologist who coined the term, workaholism is “the compulsion or uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”

The term workaholic is usually used to describe people who are preoccupied with work and spend most of their day working or thinking about work.

Sometimes referred to as work addiction, workaholism is a widely recognized concept in popular culture but is still not a formally recognized medical condition.

However, similarly to other types of addictions, workaholism can affect a person’s health, relationships, family life, and overall life satisfaction in a negative way.

The difference between being a workaholic and working hard

It’s important to note that a person can be a hard worker without being a workaholic. Here are some of the main differences between the two:

  • Physical addiction vs. passionate attachment – Workaholics have a physical addiction to work and succumb to excessive working. They have poor stress management skills and feel negative emotions, such as anxiety, when they’re not working. Hard workers, on the other hand, are passionate about work, all while working average hours.

  • Job satisfaction – People that suffer from work addiction are usually dissatisfied with their job, while hard workers are generally happy with the work they do.

  • Work-life balance – Workaholics’ lives revolve around work. Unlike hard workers, they have no balance between their personal and work life and live in a constant state of work-life conflict.

  • Live to work vs. work to live – Hard-working individuals use work as a way to fund their lifestyle. They engage in hobbies and have plenty of activities they enjoy doing outside of work. Workaholics, on the other hand, usually have no life outside of the excessive work they do.

  • Productivity – Lack of job satisfaction and no balance between their personal and work life causes workaholics to actually have low job performance, and they end up being less productive compared to hard workers.

What causes workaholism?

Workaholism is often caused by:

  • Lack of satisfaction with other areas of life – Some workaholics are not satisfied with other areas of their life (e.g., family, relationships), which forces them to overcompensate by working long hours and devoting so much energy and time to career development and gaining financial rewards.
    Being successful in their career satisfies workaholics’ need for competence. However, in order to maintain their success, they often sacrifice other areas of their personal life, including human relations.

  • External factors – Some high demanding jobs (e.g., lawyer or doctor) require people to put in long hours at work. This can lead to work addiction in certain types of individuals.

  • Existing mental health conditions – Addiction research shows that workaholism can also coexist and be amplified by mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. These types of disorders are common in people suffering from workaholism but aren’t necessarily present in every workaholic.

Causes of workaholism

Risk factors for developing work addiction

While anyone can become a workaholic, some people are at greater risk of developing work addiction. These are some of the biggest risk factors for becoming a workaholic:

  • History of addictive behavior – People that have a prior history of substance abuse and other addictive behaviors are more likely to develop work addiction as well.
    Studies show that this connection works the other way around, too: people working 50 hours or more per week have up to 3.3 times higher rates of alcohol-related problems compared to people working less than 50 hours per week.

  • Perfectionism – Workaholics tend to be perfectionists, so people with perfectionist tendencies are at a greater risk of becoming workaholics.

  • Family of workaholics – If a person has family members who are workaholics, they are likely to learn workaholic behavior and develop a work addiction themselves.

Top 5 workaholism facts

While there are individual differences between workaholics, most of them share a few traits and behaviors.

1. Workaholics experience high stress levels and have problems sleeping

Workaholics have a hard time relaxing because they think about work constantly. Even if they manage to relax for a little while, sooner or later, they start thinking about unfinished tasks, upcoming meetings, or deadlines.

This leads to more stress, which workaholics then relieve by working long hours. However, this leaves them with very little time for sleep. Being constantly stressed out and sleep-deprived due to excessive working makes them underperform at work, leading to even more stress.

Once you get into this kind of behavior pattern, it can be very hard to get out.

2. People with workaholic tendencies have more health issues

Work addiction can have significant negative consequences for a person’s physical health. Research suggests that people with workaholic tendencies have a bigger chance of suffering from cardiovascular diseases and chronic fatigue.

For example, people who work more than 61 hours per week seem to have an increased risk of suffering from high blood pressure. Diabetes is another disease associated with working long hours.

Other negative outcomes include declining mental, physical, and emotional health. Additionally, workaholics are more prone to various job-related injuries. People working 60 hours per week or more have a 23% higher chance of getting injured at work.

All of these links between workaholism and health make a lot of sense when you think about how much job stress workaholics experience. Stress, of course, has been shown to cause or exacerbate many health issues, including digestive disorders and cardiovascular diseases.

3. Workaholics sacrifice sleep, recreation, and hobbies to be able to work long hours

Workaholics have an inner compulsion to work all the time, but there are only so many hours in the day. So, they often end up sacrificing other activities in their personal lives so they could increase hours worked per week. This is classic work-life conflict.

The average workaholic is likely to sleep less than eight hours a night. They will often sacrifice recreation and hobbies so that they can work more.

Recreation and hobbies aren’t the only two things that suffer when a person has workaholic tendencies. A workaholic may also neglect their family and friends, sometimes irreparably damaging relationships, because of work. All of this leads to lower life satisfaction.

4. They are more likely to have psychiatric symptoms

Studies link workaholism to psychiatric symptoms and disorders, such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

It’s been shown that the rates of mental distress are significantly higher among people with workaholic tendencies compared to non-workaholics.

In fact, a third of people who meet criteria for workaholism also meet criteria for ADHD and anxiety disorders.

5. Workaholics are less likely to be productive

A lot of workaholics try to increase their hours worked per week because they think that will help them get more done. But, longer work hours don’t necessarily lead to higher productivity. In fact, countries with the most productive workers have relatively short workweeks, ranging from 29 to 33 average hours worked.

High stress levels and health issues that come with work addiction are likely to result in decreased productivity instead.

A lot of workaholics confuse being busy with being productive. They may think that they have a lot going on, but in reality, they might be accomplishing very little.

Workaholics will often multitask, switching from task to task, and may find themselves not finishing any of their tasks completely by the end of the day. By working in this way, they tire themselves out and are less capable of being productive tomorrow.

How to recognize a workaholic?

You might be wondering how you can recognize whether you or someone you know might be a workaholic. Here are a few telltale signs you should look out for:

  • They check their email first thing in the morning

  • They’re the first person to arrive at work and the last one to leave

  • They rarely take lunch breaks and instead eat lunch at their desk

  • They never go on vacation

  • They prioritize work over other activities

A more scientific way to determine whether a person is a workaholic is to use the Bergen Work Addiction Scale to perform a personality assessment. The scale, developed by researchers from the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Bergen, is based on seven core components of addiction:

  • Salience (being preoccupied with work)

  • Mood modification (work having an impact on mood)

  • Tolerance (the need to work longer hours to experience the same mood-modifying effects)

  • Withdrawal (experiencing unpleasant feelings when unable to work)

  • Conflict (work causing conflicts in one’s social relationships)

  • Relapse (the tendency to revert back to addictive tendencies after a period of abstinence or control)

  • Problems (health-related or other types of problems occurring because of work)

Participants are presented with seven declarative statements:

  • 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.

They can answer these statements with never, rarely, sometimes, often, or always. According to the scale, answering often or always to at least four of the statements may suggest that a person is a workaholic.

Keep in mind that the results of this test are meant to be used as a general guide and are in no way guaranteed to correctly diagnose someone as a workaholic.

Types of workaholics

There have been at least seven different classifications of workaholics since the 1970s. Most of these classifications mention the following types of workaholics:

  • Compulsive workaholics – These individuals show symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and associated personality traits. They prioritize work and want to spend all their time working.

  • Perfectionist workaholics – Workaholics of this type are very detail-oriented and aim to complete all their tasks perfectly.

  • Procrastinating workaholics – Procrastinators who work in binges, delaying starting work on a task until the last minute.

4 ways to stop being a workaholic

Think you or someone you know might be a workaholic? Here are a few tips that can help.

1. Take regular work breaks

Workaholics avoid taking breaks because they’re looking to get as much work done as possible during the workday. The negative consequences of this include exhaustion and reduced productivity.

You need to take breaks at regular intervals to reduce both mental and physical fatigue. Short and long breaks, as well as lunch breaks, all have a positive effect on your well-being.

Studies show that taking regular lunch breaks helps to increase energy levels at work and prevents you from feeling exhausted. Micro-breaks, such as leaving your desk to grab a snack or talk to a co-worker, support well-being and have a positive impact on productivity.

Here’s how to make the most out of your breaks:

Schedule your breaks

If you work from home or have a flexible work schedule, try to schedule breaks at regular intervals. For example, you could try using the Pomodoro technique, working for focused 25-minute bursts and then taking a 5-minute break after each work interval.

Actually rest during breaks

If you work from home, it can be tempting to do chores during breaks. However, for a break to be effective, you need to actually rest and not do something else that could tire you out.

Give your mind a rest, too

Your mind needs a break the same way your body does. Don’t use the computer or your smartphone during your break. Instead, go for a walk or meditate.

2. Unplug completely when you’re off the clock

Technology makes it hard to unplug after work. With emails and other work notifications available at the tap of a button, it’s easy to go back into work mode during off-hours.

You need to make an active effort to unplug completely when you’re off the clock. Here are a few tips that can help:

  • Close the loop before you get off work – Reply to all the unanswered emails in your inbox and write out to-dos for your next workday at the end of the current one. This will help to get everything out of your head and allow you to relax once you’re finally done with work.

  • Don’t check your inbox – Once you’re off the clock, resist the urge to check your inbox or Slack notifications. Spending a couple of minutes to check notifications can easily turn into working for another two hours just to finish this or that.

  • Create an unplugging ritual – Design an after-work routine that you can stick to consistently. Make sure it consists of activities you look forward to so that you’ll be excited to finish work. For example, you could go out for a walk, make yourself a drink, or prepare dinner.

3. Use up your vacation time every year

More than half of Americans don’t use their vacation days, which amounts to a total of 768 million unused vacation days every year. There are a number of reasons why people refrain from taking any vacation time, including:

  • Wanting to show that they’re dedicated to their job

  • Being afraid that they’ll be seen as replaceable

  • Thinking that it will increase their chances of advancement within the company

If you work at a company with even a remotely healthy work culture, this type of thinking isn’t necessary. You should use up your vacation time every year and look at vacation as an opportunity to recharge your batteries and then return to work refreshed.

Request time off

Here’s how to take a vacation that will allow you to actually recharge and feel better once you come back:

  • Take care of priorities before you leave – Clear out your to-do list and wrap up important projects before you leave for vacation. This will ensure that you won’t be thinking about unfinished projects and other work-related tasks during your vacation.

  • Reduce smartphone usage – Try to use your smartphone as little as possible during the vacation. You might still need it for things like Google Maps, but stay off social networks and anything else that might distract you from fully enjoying your vacation.

  • Make yourself unavailable – Finally, don’t reply to work-related emails and messages during the vacation. This is your time to relax, so don’t allow anyone to pull you into work mode.

4. Take up a hobby

Hobbies allow you to decompress and reduce stress. Apart from being beneficial for your mental health, engaging in a hobby can also lower your blood pressure and cortisol, staving off the negative outcomes associated with work addiction.

Additionally, studies have shown that hobbies can help improve self-efficacy and boost a person’s job performance by 15% to 30%.

When engaging in a hobby, make sure to:

  • Look for something you’re genuinely interested in – Not sure what kind of hobby to take up? Try going back to a hobby you enjoyed in your childhood. Or, give something you’ve always wanted to try a go.

  • Schedule time for your hobby – Most people that don’t have a hobby think they lack the time for it. However, the truth is that most of us can find some time in our week to engage in a hobby. You just need to schedule a time for it on your calendar.
    This is where a technique like time blocking can help. Fire up your smartphone’s calendar app and block out 8 hours a day for work.
    Add in time blocks for meals, sleep, and other essential daily activities. See all the time you have left? That’s your free time. Fill it up with hobbies and fun activities you’d like to do.

  • Stick to it – Once you find a hobby, stick to it. Try to engage in your hobby at least once a week. This will help you reap all the benefits of having a hobby consistently.

Time blocking can help with workaholism

How businesses can prevent work addiction and its negative consequences

Apart from having a negative impact on employees’ well-being, work addiction can also hurt businesses through low work engagement and decreased productivity.

Keep on reading to learn what you can do to prevent your team members from becoming workaholics.

Default to asynchronous communication

The first thing you can do to prevent team members from developing work addiction is to let them know that it’s fine not to be available during off-hours. If you sense that certain members have problems unplugging after work, talk to them and try to relieve any concerns they might have.

It’s also a good idea to create a communication policy that outlines what kind of behavior is expected and encouraged when it comes to team communication.

At Hubstaff, we encourage asynchronous communication. Team members are not required to reply to any messages they receive immediately but are instead asked to do so within 24 hours (weekends, holidays, and vacation time excluded).

Offer flexible work hours

Flexible working hours can allow your team members to create a schedule that works for them. It gives them space to make time for hobbies, spending time with family and friends, and anything else they’re interested in more easily.

A flexible work schedule also enables team members to work when they’re most productive. This way, they can complete tasks faster and don’t have to work longer hours and risk becoming workaholics.

Consider implementing one of these three types of flexible schedules:

  • Semi-flexible daily schedule – With this type of schedule, team members are free to come to work an hour earlier or leave an hour earlier. You can also allow your team to arrive an hour later.

  • Compressed work week – A 4-day workweek where the team works 10-hour days and gets one day off. Some companies have also implemented a 4-day workweek that consists of 32 work hours instead of 40. The latter has shown to be quite effective in countries like Iceland and New Zealand.

  • Flexitime – A completely flexible schedule that allows employees to work any hours they want as long as they put in 40 hours of work every week. This is the most commonly used flexible schedule among remote companies.

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Encourage team members to take time off

We’ve already talked about the importance of taking time off. But what if team members are unwilling to use their vacation time throughout the year for one reason or another?

If that’s the case, you need to encourage them to take time off by instituting the right policies. Here are some things you can do:

  • Establish time-off minimums – Institute a policy that states that team members must take a certain number of days off every year. This will show them that it’s both fine and expected to take time off.

  • Limit vacation rollover – A lot of employees save vacation days because they think that they’ll take a longer vacation next year. However, statistics show that most vacation days end up unused. To prevent this, limit or forbid vacation rollover.

  • Set a deadline for time-off requests – You can also increase the chances of team members taking time off by setting a deadline for time-off requests. This will trigger your team’s fear of missing out and increase the chances of team members requesting time off.

  • Make it easy to request time off – Use a software solution like Hubstaff to simplify the process of requesting and approving time off. This will ensure team members request time off more frequently.

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Experiment with a 4-day work week

A 4-day workweek, when implemented correctly, can be a great way to help your team achieve better work-life balance and stave off work addiction.

A New Zealand study showed that implementing a 4-day workweek decreases employee stress while increasing overall work satisfaction. The same study also reported a 20% increase in productivity for workers who participated in the study.

Similar results were observed in Iceland, where the 4-day workweek was implemented nationwide. Most workplaces experienced increased productivity or no change in how productive employees were.

Here are some tips to help you implement a 4-day workweek effectively:

  • Avoid salary reductions – Some companies have attempted implementing 4-day workweeks while reducing people’s salaries to reflect the new hours worked. This can often result in a lot of disgruntled employees who’ll be opposed to the new schedule.

  • Start with a one-week trial – As with implementing any new policy, it’s a good idea to test it out for a brief period first. Start with a one-week trial of your new 4-day workweek, and then re-evaluate once the week is over. This is a low-risk way of testing out a 4-day workweek at your company.

  • Be prepared to switch back – There’s no shame in trying something out. If things don’t work out or employee satisfaction goes down, be prepared to switch back to your regular 5-day schedule.

Are you a workaholic?

By now, you should know how detrimental work addiction can be to a person’s health. If you suspect that you or someone on your team might be a workaholic, here’s what to do:

  • Take the workaholic test – Use the Bergen Work Addiction Scale and the accompanying test to determine whether you or your team suffer from work addiction. If the test comes up negative — great. If, on the other hand, the results suggest that you or someone on your team suffers from workaholism, follow the next step.

  • Create a plan for dealing with workaholism – Look through this guide again and choose two specific tactics you'll use to combat work addiction. For example, you could put in a time off request right now and then think about rekindling an old hobby.
    If you’re a manager looking to address workaholism in your team, look into ways of improving your time off policy to encourage team members to take more time off. Try establishing a time-off minimum or setting a vacation rollover limit, for example.

  • Consider professional help – Finally, if you feel like you can’t address your workaholic tendencies on your own, consider getting professional help.
    There are plenty of therapists who specialize in occupational health psychology and addictive behavior that can help you and create an addiction recovery plan adapted to your specific situation and personality traits.

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