Signs, Effects, and Treatment of Work Addiction

Man sitting unhappy at work table

An official diagnosis of work addiction may be challenging to make since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) does not include an entry for the behavioral addiction. However, work addiction shares many similar behavioral patterns to other forms of addiction, including an uncontrollable urge to continue engaging in the addictive behaviors despite negative consequences to your physical and mental health, as well as social and family relationships.1 Other common components of behavioral addictions include feelings of helplessness and a loss of control.2

While many people jokingly describe themselves as workaholics, others face far more serious issues around their ability to moderate their work behaviors. Current research indicates that around 5–10% of the United States population meet the criteria for a work addiction,1 with that number rising as high as 25% in other studies.2 Given the relatively high prevalence of work addiction—and the fact that most people work—it is an important issue to fully understand.

Signs and Symptoms of Work Addiction

Work addiction often occurs in people who have a strong need for perfection. Low self-esteem may also play a role in the development of work addiction, since you may work harder to earn your supervisor’s approval. Other factors include: 2,3

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders.
  • Anxiety.
  • An extremely driven, Type A personality.
  • Using work to avoid emotional pain.

Some research indicates that many people with work addiction have parents who had very high expectations of them and felt as though their parent’s love and approval was dependent upon their professional success.3

Help for Work Addiction

Medical professional on computer Behavioral health refers to a person’s state of being and how their behaviors and choices affect their overall health and wellness. Changing your addictive behaviors directly influences your life, then, by lessening or removing the symptoms of the behavioral addiction. Read More

 

More demanding jobs frequently require increased hours to get tasks done, and internet and cell phones allow boundaries between work and personal time to blur. So it can be hard to tell if a person has a work addiction or is simply a conscientious, dedicated worker who goes the distance to do their job.3

A broad description of work addiction, then, is when a person works many more hours than a job requires, and the person continues to work these extra hours despite negative effects on their personal life, family relationships, mental, and physical health. Furthermore, people with work addiction generally have low personal satisfaction at their jobs.2

Research identifies common signs of work addiction as:3

  • Hurrying; always staying busy.
  • The need to control.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Difficulty with relationships.
  • Work binges.
  • Difficulty relaxing and having fun.
  • Memory loss due to exhaustion.
  • Mental preoccupation with work.
  • Impatience and irritability.
  • Feelings of self-inadequacy.
  • Self-neglect.

These signs are somewhat subjective, especially since you may see your work habits as a sign of dedication to working hard to provide for yourself or your family as opposed to an addiction. However, your spouse or friends may see these same behaviors as evidence of a work addiction. A thorough evaluation by a mental health professional can help determine if your work ethic has moved beyond healthy levels of commitment into a harmful work addiction.

Effects of Work Addiction

Work addiction can result in various negative consequences, including:1,2

  • Burnout and dissatisfaction with work.
  • Increased rates of absenteeism from work.
  • Depressive symptoms.
  • Increased anxiety.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Stress-associated physical health issues, including fatigue and anxiety.
  • Chest pains and shortness of breath.
  • Family problems due to the conflicting demands of family life and work.
  • Higher levels of marital conflict.
  • Increased risk of substance abuse.
  • Elevated feelings of stress. 

Treatment Options for Work Addiction

Hands all in group therapy

Many people who seek treatment for work addiction do not enter treatment for the work addiction itself. In many cases, they also suffer from a substance abuse disorder or another behavioral health issue such as depression, anger management, or anxiety, and they seek treatment for these things.

At times, a work addiction can manifest after a person has tried to manage a substance abuse disorder. For example, instead of drinking after work, a person may work longer hours and focus on work as a distraction from drinking. When this happens, a substance abuse addiction and a behavioral addiction interact negatively with each other, worsening one behavior and masking the other addiction.2 

Researchers have noted that behavioral addictions can be silent or hidden addictions, in part, because many counselors lack the training to assess or treat behavioral addictions or don’t take them as seriously as a substance abuse addiction. So it is important to find a therapist who understands work addiction and can provide treatment for such addiction. Treatment provided by an unskilled therapist or program without an understanding of work addiction could lead to a worsening of the addiction.2 

“According to researchers who have studied work addiction extensively, it is the most socially acceptable form of addiction.”

It is also difficult to treat work addiction in a culture that rewards engaging in workaholic behaviors, so even if you need treatment for a work addiction, you can often justify or minimize your addictive behaviors as necessary to do your job. According to researchers who have studied work addiction extensively, it is the most socially acceptable form of addiction.4

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment for work addiction alone is unusual; it most often happens in the context of treating a co-occurring substance abuse or psychiatric issue, such as depression, suicidal ideations, or some other behavioral health diagnosis that results in a danger to yourself or others.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is the most common approach for treating work addiction. Treatment typically focuses on the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or Motivational Interviewing (MI), both of which are common techniques for treating all forms of addiction. CBT teaches you to recognize faulty or negative thinking patterns that lead to harmful behaviors. You then learn to replace these thoughts with more accurate or positive thoughts that encourage constructive behavioral changes.3

MI helps uncover how willing you are to change and what feelings and thoughts are blocking your willingness. From here, you identify a positive motivation within yourself that helps you overcome any fear or resistance, and clarify your goals so you can move forward in your recovery.3

Other approaches include holistic treatment programs, which focus on bringing your work and family life back into balance. This treatment approach focuses on your overall mental and physical health and incorporates family and individual therapy in the program, while also attending to diet, spirituality, stress management, relaxation techniques, and sleep enhancement.3

Psychodynamic treatment looks at how your work addiction developed in the first place, looking at formative or foundational life experiences that contributed to your behavioral addiction. Clinicians believe that getting at your underlying processes and behaviors—such as narcissism, anger, shame, and approval-seeking—are essential for long-term behavioral changes to occur.4

Group Therapy

Some researchers note that group therapy for work addiction is not a common approach, while others indicate that group therapy is of great value to people recovering from work addiction.3 What group therapy can provide is a setting of peers who show empathy, share experiences, recognize addictive thought patterns, and decrease isolation.4 

12-Step Groups

Workaholics Anonymous is a popular 12-step group that is a free resource for people seeking treatment for work addiction. Any 12-step (or non-12-step support group, for that matter) can be a useful part of treatment, both as an adjunct to inpatient or outpatient programs and as continuing care after you’ve completed a program.

The only criteria to join is that you recognize your addiction. Workaholics Anonymous notes that abstinence from work is not the goal, since work is necessary for most people. Rather, the group seeks to help members find ways to manage work so that it does not take over their lives. Some examples of strategies include:5

  • I will only work 5 out of 7 days.
  • I will put my health before my work.
  • I will not rush or drive unsafely, even if I’m late to work.
  • I will not bring work to the table during meal times.
  • I will eat my meals sitting down in a relaxed manner.
  • I will not take on a new commitment without checking with another member.
  • I will not work more than 45 hours per week.
  • I will have 2 days off in a row per week.
  • I will not blame others for my work stress.
  • I will spend one whole day every week doing something fun with my children.

Work addiction is a real problem for many people. Getting an assessment by a mental health professional is the first step in determining if work addiction is taking over your life and if you can benefit from treatment.

Sources

  1. Quinones, C. & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Addiction to Work: A Critical Review of the Workaholism Construct and Recommendations for AssessmentJournal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services53(10), 48–59.
  2. Freimuth, M., Waddell, M., Stannard, J., Kelley, S., Kipper, A., Richardson, A. & Szuromi, I. (2008). Expanding the Scope of Dual Diagnosis and Co-Addictions: Behavioral AddictionsJournal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery3(3-4), 137–160.
  3. Sussman, S. (2012). Workaholism: A ReviewJournal of Addiction Research & Therapy, (1).
  4. Berglas, S. T. (2004). Treating workaholism. Handbook of Addictive Disorders. A Practical Guide to Diagnosis and Treatment. 383-407.
  5. Workaholics Anonymous (2006). Abstinence in Workaholics Anonymous.
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