Work Addiction: How to Help Employees Overcome It and Stay Productive

Work addiction can cause burnout and physical illness. Here’s how employers can help work-addicted employees become healthy and productive again.

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Workplace news in 2022 highlighted the exodus of employees from the labor force through “quiet quitting” or riding the Great Resignation wave. While the spotlight has been on these workers, those with the tag “workaholic” have been largely under the radar.

Society normally praises people for being hardworking, having a “great work ethic” or for “going above and beyond the call of duty.” But these traits can become life-threatening for people with a serious preoccupation with work known as “work addiction.”

Behavioral scientists say that work addiction is an affliction that needs as much diagnosis and treatment as any other mental health condition.

It also needs the attention of small businesses (SMBs), who may not have thought about the difference between a diligent, committed employee and one who’s tethered to the job in ways that cause burnout and physical illnesses.

What is the definition of “work addiction”?

A 1st step in helping workaholics is understanding what the addiction is. Scientists define work-addicted people as those who:

  • Have an excessive concern with work.
  • Have a strong, uncontrollable work motivation.
  • Put so much effort and time into work that they jeopardize their health and well-being, personal relationships, and non-work activities.

Scientists generally agree that work addiction is difficult to detect because of the high value society places on hard work and because some hard workers simply appear to love what they do for a living.

But the level of harm working hard has on people’s well-being can be where the “line in the sand” is drawn between a strong work ethic and a serious addiction.

What are the causes of work addiction?

Although no one is able to pinpoint direct causes of work addiction, behavioral scientists have theories on how it may occur.

One theory is that workaholics, like people who abuse drugs or alcohol, get a kind of psychological “high” from their obsession with work. The source of that high may be a desire for success, recognition, or status.

Another theory is that, again, like substance abuse, work may be seen as a socially acceptable way to “escape” from emotionally stressful situations.

Whatever the causes of work addiction, experts say that workaholics are likely to keep up the behavior despite the negative outcomes.

What’s the difference between hardworking vs. work-addicted?

Knowing the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic can be mind-boggling. But according to behavioral scientists, the distinction between the 2 hinges on behavioral and psychological factors.

Hardworking people may put extra time and effort into their jobs, but they can scale back or turn off their involvement at any time.

For instance, hardworking people may put extra time and effort into their jobs, but they can scale back or turn off their involvement at any time. Also, hardworking people reportedly are happier and more engaged on the job than workaholics.

Behavioral scientists say that what sets apart work addicts from hardworking employees is:

  • Always “being on.” Workaholics are always thinking about the job. This keeps them from being able to “switch off,” even after hours.
  • Driven by fear. They feel pressured to work excessive hours to prevent negative work-related consequences, such as getting fired or being scrutinized by their boss or colleagues.
  • Plagued by anxiety. They have difficulty enjoying time away from work and often feel guilty or anxious about having lunch breaks and spending evenings, weekends, and holidays during off-work hours.

If these differences between workaholics and hardworking employees aren’t enough to help employers identify addicts, there are even more distinctions to consider.

What are additional signs and symptoms of workaholism?

Addiction often is tied to an over-reliance on substances like drugs or alcohol. But psychiatrists recognize workaholism as a process addiction, or a pattern of substance-free, compulsive behavior that a person keeps engaging in despite negative outcomes.

Work addicts not only keep up this behavior, but they also sometimes feel shame and remorse afterwards, say psychiatrists.

Other examples of process addiction are obsessions with gambling, shopping, the internet, or food.

Signs and symptoms of process addiction around work involve:

  • Using the addiction to handle difficult feelings or emotions.
  • Building a tolerance for the addiction, which triggers more potentially harmful behavior.
  • Withdrawing emotionally when the behavior is avoided or stopped.
  • Developing anxiety, depression, irritability, or even substance abuse when the behavior stops.

“Work addiction is marked by a constant stream of obsessive thoughts about your job, usually driven by fear, that may only be quelled through the act of toil,” said Carder Stout, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist.

Stout, the author of the upcoming book, We Are All Addicts: The Soul’s Guide to Kicking Your Compulsions (Jan. 10, 2023, Viva Editions, Simon & Schuster), said that the “mental chatter” in workaholics’ heads won’t stop until they’re sitting down at their computers or taking out their phones to do work.

He added that their thoughts about work are so invasive that they’re not involved in other circumstances in their lives.

All these signs and symptoms demonstrate how serious work addiction is. But how common is the problem?

What do statistics show about work addiction?

Work addiction appears as a positive trait in certain scientific studies, which mental health professionals say may be keeping workaholics from getting the recognition and treatment they need. Still, psychologists estimate that about 10% of Americans are bona fide workaholics.

Other sources put the number of work addicts at between 15% and 25%, while acknowledging that these statistics may include both hardworking people and those with a true addiction.

Researchers in Norway estimate that about 7.3% to 8.3% of that country’s population are workaholics.

In a study of 187 out of 1,580 French workers, the results showed that:

  • Workers with high-demand jobs were 5 times more likely to be at risk for work addiction than those in low-demand jobs. The higher the job demands, the higher the risk of addiction.
  • Workers at a higher risk for addiction were twice as likely as lower-risk workers to suffer from depression.
  • Sleep quality was less for workers in high-demand jobs compared to those in low-demand jobs.
  • Workers in high-demand jobs were the most stressed out among most workers in the study.

Researchers in this study concluded that high-demand jobs put employees at higher risk for work addiction. In short, certain types of jobs — rather than personality types — can turn workers into addicts and negatively affect their health and well-being in the process.

Long work hours can be symptomatic of work addiction

Statistics also show that long work hours can be symptomatic of work addiction. Americans are on record for working the longest hours, 50 hours per week.

Despite an “eager beaver” approach to their jobs, workaholics are found to be less productive than other workers because they’re often stressed or burned out.

Research on recovered workaholics showed that they completed their work in 80 hours when addicted, but in recovery, they completed their work in 50 hours.

What are the consequences of work addiction?

The price of workaholism is too high for employers to ignore. More than a few studies show that anxiety and chronic stress among workers can lead to burnout, depression, and a host of medical disorders (e.g., cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, injuries, ulcers, cancer, suicide, impaired immune function, and psychological disorders).

For employers, a workplace impaired by chronic illness can also mean higher payouts in healthcare coverage and decreases in productivity, retention, employee engagement, and job satisfaction.

For employers, a workplace impaired by chronic illness can also mean higher payouts in healthcare coverage and decreases in productivity, retention, employee engagement, and job satisfaction.

What can employers can do to help employees?

Employers can’t diagnose or treat work addiction, but they can help identify and prevent it by having employees answer these questions from Dr. Stout:

  • Have I broken promises to my children because of work?
  • Have I ruined romantic relationships because of work?
  • Also, have I neglected the activities I love because of work?
  • Am I constantly thinking about work and unable to focus on other things?
  • Do the thoughts go away only when I engage with work?

Employers can pass along Dr. Stout’s exercises for helping employees avoid work addiction by reducing their digital connectivity, reliance, and availability. These exercises include:

  • Choosing 1 day in the week to make only calls — no text messages or other communication — from their smartphones.
  • Picking a regular time each night to power down their phone and stay unplugged for at least 12 hours.
  • Before going to bed at night, turning off the Wi-Fi (if no one else in the household is using it). Dr. Stout says that Wi-Fi is known to emit a strong electromagnetic pulse that disrupts sleep.
  • Check email on their computers, rather than their phones, to keep from constantly looking for messages. Check email once in the morning, again in the early afternoon, and once in the evening.

Here are more ways employers can help employees avoid or overcome work addiction:

  • Stress the importance of making time for both work and personal activities and allow employees more flexibility in their work schedules.
  • Have managers and supervisors set reasonable expectations for employees. Establish clear boundaries for how and when people work, which can help stave off workaholics’ impulse to work around the clock.
  • Set priorities so that workaholics know what’s important and what’s not. Prioritization methods like the Eisenhower Matrix and project management tools like Hive, Asana, and Trello can make workflow more transparent and therefore more manageable for employers.
  • Provide employees with sufficient resources, like the tools they need to do their jobs and programs to enhance their well-being.

These are basically no- or low-cost ways of dealing with work addiction.

Employers can support workers in finding a healthy balance

Employers can help work-addicted employees become healthy and productive again. The 1st step in the process is understanding the difference between hardworking employees and those with a serious addiction to work.

The second step is knowing the signs and symptoms of work addiction.

The final step is following the advice of experts on how to undo the damage that work addiction can have on employees’ health, well-being, job satisfaction, and productivity.

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