Reliable statistics on the prevalence of individuals addicted to work on a country-by-country basis are almost non-existent. Only two countries (Norway and Hungary) have carried out nationally representative studies. Norwegian studies led by Dr. Cecilie Andreassen reported that approximately 7.3%-8.3% of Norwegians are addicted to work using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. A Hungarian study led by Dr. Zsolt Demetrovics reported that 8.2% of the 18- to 64-year old population working at least 40 hours a week is at risk for work addiction using the Work Addiction Risk Test.

In a comprehensive literature review that I co-authored in Evaluation and the Health Professions using US data, we provided a tentative estimation of the prevalence of work addiction among Americans at 10%. Some estimates are as high as 15%-25% among employed individuals although some of these estimates appear to relate to excessive and committed working rather than a genuine addictive behavior. Others claim that the rates of work addiction are high amongst professionals (e.g., lawyers, medics, scientists). Such individuals may work very long hours, expend high effort in their job, delegate rarely, and may not necessarily be more productive. It also appears that those genuinely addicted to work appear to have a compulsive drive to gain approval and success but can result in impaired judgment, poor health, burnout, and breakdowns as opposed to what might be described ‘enthusiastic workaholism’ where few problems are associated with the behavior.

Last week, I and two of my colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions examining various myths concerning work addiction. One of the myths we explored was that ‘work addiction is similar to other behavioral addictions’. While work addiction does indeed have many similarities to other behavioral addictions (e.g., gambling, gaming, shopping, sex, etc.), it fundamentally differs from them in a critical way because it is the only behavior that individuals are typically required to do eight hours a day and is an activity that individuals receive gratification from the local environment and/or society more generally for engaging in the activity. There may also be some benefits from normal [and excessive] work (e.g., financial security through earning a good salary, financial bonuses based on productivity, international travel, free or reduced medical insurance, company car, etc.). Unlike other behavioral and substance addictions where one of the key criteria is typically a negative impact on occupational duties, work addicts cannot negatively impact on the activity they are already engaged in (except in the sense that their addiction to work may impact work productivity or work quality due to resulting psychological and/or physical illness).

In some respects, work addiction is similar to exercise addiction in that it is an activity that should be a part of people’s lives and often has some benefits even when engaged in excessively. Such activities have been described by Ian Brown as ‘mixed blessings’ addictions. For instance, in the case of exercise addiction, problematic exercise that interferes with both job and relationships can still have some positive consequences (such as being physically fit). However, it should be emphasized that such positive consequences are typically short lasting, and in the long run, addiction will take its toll on health (even exercise in excess is physiologically unhealthy in the long run in terms of immune function, cardiovascular health, bone health, and mental health. Furthermore, some research suggests that work and exercise addiction have also similar personality correlates different from other addictions, namely high conscientiousness. This might contribute to the fact that work addiction is so perplexing because this personality trait is consistently linked to better health.

Another myth we explored was ‘work addiction and workaholism are the same thing’. The issue of whether ‘workaholism’ and ‘work addiction’ are the same entity depends on how these constructs are defined. For instance, I have argued that any behavior that fulfils six core components (i.e., salience, conflict, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and relapse) should be operationalized as an addiction. These six components have also been the basis of many psychometric instruments for assessing potential addictions including work addiction (such as the Bergen Work Addiction Scale that I co-developed and was published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Scandinavian Psychology). The empirical research carried out by myself and others over the last five years concerning ‘work addiction’ is theoretically rooted in the core addiction literature whereas ‘workaholism’ more generally includes a wider range of theoretical underpinnings and in some research is a construct seen as something positive rather than negative. Arguably, in the popular press and in common everyday language ‘workaholism’ is often used as a positive notion to describe very engaged workers, which adds significantly to the confusion about the two terms.

‘Workaholism’ is arguably a generic term that throughout the literature (as well as by lay people and the popular press) appears to equate to excessive working irrespective of whether the consequences are advantageous or disadvantageous. There is clearly lack of precise dictionary definitions of ‘work addiction’ and ‘workaholism’, and there is no reason to assume they could not be used as synonyms. However, the common use of the term ‘workaholism’ to denote anything related to high involvement in work may suggest that for practical reasons in the professional literature on work addiction, understood within addiction framework, it would be advisable to limit usage of this term. While it is almost impossible to control natural usage of terms, preference for ‘work addiction’ in addiction literature would be a way to emphasize the addiction framework in which the phenomenon is being conceptualized. In short, ‘work addiction' is a psychological construct while 'workaholism' is arguably a more generic term.

References

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., Kravina, L., Jensen, F., & Pallesen, S. (2014). The prevalence of workaholism: A survey study in a nationally representative sample of norwegian employees. PLoS ONE, 9, e102446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102446

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a work addiction scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265–272. doi:10.1111/sjop.2012.53.issue-3

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Sinha, R., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2016) The Relationships between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE, 11: e0152978. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0152978

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