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Occupational Hazard

Are you addicted to work?

In a previous blog, I examined the concept of workaholism. A couple of years ago, a paper that I co-wrote (and published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology) with some of my research colleagues from the University of Bergen (Norway) and led by Dr. Cecilie Andreasson featured in a lot of the national newspapers including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Guardian, and USA Today.

In a nutshell, our paper presented a new instrument to assess ‘work addiction’ and is based on core elements of addiction outlined in a previous blog for Psychology Today and which are recognised as key diagnostic criteria for addictions. In the press release of our study, Dr Andreassen noted in the wake of globalisation, new technology and blurred boundaries between work and private life, we are witnessing an increase in work addiction. A number of studies show that work addiction has been associated with insomnia, health problems, burnout and stress, as well as creating conflict between work and family life.

To date, few measures of workaholism have been developed. In 1992, Dr. Janet Spence developed the most frequently used measure of workaholism (i.e., the Workaholism Battery; Work-BAT). They argued that the typical workaholic is heavily involved in work, feels motivated to work by an inner drive, and has low enjoyment of work. In line with these ideas, they created three self-report scales assessing (i) work involvement; (ii) drive; and (iii) enjoyment of work. Potential items were first administered to students. Items showing poor psychometric properties were dropped or rewritten before the scale was administered to an adult sample. The WorkBAT comprises 25 items answered on a 5-point scale ranging from ‘‘strongly disagree’’ to ‘‘strongly agree’’. Although the WorkBAT is currently the most used measure of Workaholism, the Work Involvement subscale has in several studies failed to display appropriate psychometric properties. The concept of the ‘Enjoyment of Work’ subscale has been criticized by many researchers because it is not regarded as defining the characteristics of workaholism.

The first quantitative measure of work addiction or workaholism was the Work Addiction Risk Test (WART), developed in 1989 by Dr. Bryan Robinson. Items were based on symptoms reported by clinicians working with both clients and families experiencing work addiction problems. Several studies by Robinson and his colleagues have attested to the psychometric properties of the WART. The total composite scores of the WART have been shown to be positively associated with scores on measures of anxiety and Type A behaviour.

The WART comprises 25 items, all rated on a 4-point scale ranging from 1 (never true) to 4 (always true). Initially, the 25 items appeared to be distributed between five factors/subscales: (i) compulsive tendencies; (ii) control; (iii) impaired communication/self-absorption; (iv) inability to delegate; and (v) self-worth. However, further investigation revealed that only 15 items, distributed across the three initial factors, were useful for correctly discriminating between workaholics and a control group. The authors concluded that the Compulsive Tendencies subscale was the most important in making this distinction, and suggested using the revised scale in future studies. However, the WART has been criticized for overlapping little with more contemporary and widely accepted views on workaholism.

In 2009, Dr. Wilmar Schaufeli and colleagues developed a new workaholism scale. From a theoretical perspective, they argued that workaholics typically spend a great deal of time on work activities, and that additionally they are obsessed with their work. On this basis, they constructed the Dutch Workaholism Scale (DUWAS). The scale reflected these two dimensions, using five items from the Compulsive Tendencies Scale of the WART that they renamed Working Excessively, and five items from the Drive scale of the WorkBAT, which were denoted as Working Compulsively. The DUWAS has shown good psychometric properties in several studies

However, we argued that because the concept of workaholism stems from the field of addiction, measures of workaholism or work addiction should be expected to be closely linked to the core elements of addictions. When reviewing the construction processes of the three workaholism instruments outlined above, few of them have specifically been developed with the addiction perspective in mind and could be argued to lack face validity.

With our scale—The Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS)—anyone can find out their degree of work addiction: non-addicted, mildly addicted or workaholic. More than 12,000 Norwegian employees from 25 different industries participated in the development of the scale. The scale was administrated to two cross-occupational samples and reflects the seven core elements of addiction: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse, and problems. The results of our study showed that the scale as reliably differentiating between workaholics and non-workaholics.

We believe the scale may add value to work addiction research and practice, particularly when it comes to facilitating treatment and estimating prevalence of work addiction in the general population worldwide. It uses just 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. The seven items are:

- 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 deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health

If you respond ‘often’ or ‘always’ on at least four of the seven items it may be indicative of being a workaholic. Although there are other ‘workaholism’ scales that have been developed, this is the first scale to use core concepts of addiction found in other more traditional addictions.

In August 2014, we published the first ever nationally representative study of workaholism in the journal PLoS ONE. Using the BWAS we reported that 8% of employees in Norway were workaholics. While employers may like (and in some instances actively encourage) workaholism, in the long run it is not good for business. Workaholics are more likely to burn out, have heart attacks and be hospitalized. While all employers will value highly productive individuals, short-term benefits are likely to be outweighed if workaholics can no longer function due to health problems exacerbated by excessive working.

References and further reading

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Hetland, J. & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a Work Addiction Scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265-272.

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(8): e102446. 

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Workaholism is still a useful construct. Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 97-100.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Matuska, K.M. (2010). Workaholism, life balance, and well-being: A comparative analysis. Journal of Occupational Science, 17, 104-111.

Schaufeli, W.B., Shimazu, A. & Taris, T. W. (2009). Being driven to work excessively hard. The evaluation of a two-factor measure of workaholism in the Netherlands and Japan. Cross-Cultural Research, 43, 320–348.

Schaufeli, W.B., Taris, T.W., & Bakker, A.B. (2006). Doctor Jekyll or Mr Hyde? On the differences between work engagement and workaholism. In R. Burke (Ed.), Workaholism and long working hours (pp. 193-217). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Spence, J. T. & Robbins, A. S. (1992). Workaholism – definition, measurement, and preliminary results. Journal of Personality Assessment, 58, 160-178.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

van Beek, I., T.W., Taris, & Schaufeli, W.B. (2011). Workaholic and work engaged employees: Dead ringers or worlds apart? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16, 468-482.