Addiction

"Productivity Addiction"

Another type of "work addiction"?

Posted Aug 22, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed by the BBC for an online story they were writing on "productivity addiction." I began the interview by telling the journalist (Jessica Mudditt) that the term "productivity addiction" is somewhat of an oxymoron in that "productivity" is almost the antithesis of "addiction" and that I would not use the term myself.

I was interviewed because of my research into "workaholism" and "work addiction" (two things that I have now argued are different constructs in my more recent publications — see references below – particularly the paper "Ten myths about work addiction," published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions). Mudditt interviewed Dr. Sandra Chapman who heads up the Center for Brain Health (University of Texas, US), who was quoted as saying:

“The brain can become addicted to productivity just as it can to more familiar sources of addiction, such as drugs, gambling, eating or shopping. A person might crave the recognition their work gives them, or the salary increases they get. The problem is that just like all addictions, over time a person needs more and more to be satisfied and then it starts to work against you. Withdrawal symptoms include increased anxiety, depression and fear. [Work is] seen as a good thing: the more you work, the better. Many people don’t realise the harm it causes until a divorce occurs and a family is broken apart, or the toll it takes on mental health.”

I’m one of the many academics who don’t adhere to the concept of addiction being a brain disease (because addiction is biopsychosocial and there are many different aetiologies and pathways for how and why individuals develop addictions), although I do (and some may say, controversially) believe that work can be a genuine addiction.

I’ve also argued that any activity can theoretically be addictive if the activity can provide constant reinforcement (i.e., rewards) and that such rewards can be physiological, psychological, social, and/or financial. When it comes to work (and more specifically productive work), there are indeed many rewards but based on my own criteria for addiction, very few people would ever be classed as genuinely addicted to work or productivity. In the long run, genuine work addicts would cease being productive because the negatives in their lives would far outweigh the positives, unless of course work was the only thing in their lives (but then there would be little conflict in their lives and therefore would not be defined as an addiction by my own criteria).

In my interview with Mudditt, I noted that work addiction is what I would term a "mixed-blessing addiction" (a term that one of my mentors [Iain Brown] had used in his 1980s work on behavioural addiction), something that could also apply to behaviours such as exercise addiction. I told her that a workaholic might be earning a lot of money, just as an exercise addict is very fit. But the thing about any addiction is that in the long run, the detrimental effects outweigh any short-term benefits. I also argued that no matter how productive an individual considers themselves, there will come a point when their performance suffers and the effects become potentially life-threatening.

There may be an initial period where the individual who is developing a work addiction is more productive than someone who isn’t addicted to work, but it will get to a point when they are no longer productive and their health and relationships are affected. It could be after one year or more, but if the individual doesn’t do anything about it, they could end up having serious health consequences. For instance, I speculated that the consequences of work addiction may be reclassified as something else: If someone ends up dying of a work-related heart attack, it isn’t necessarily seen as having anything to do with an addiction per se – it might be attributed to something like burnout.

The "hook" for the BBC article was an interview with 27-year-old Reza Jafery, who was a self-confessed "productivity addict" and had been so since he was a child:

“[Jafery has] been something of a workaholic since he was in first grade. Whenever he was assigned homework, he’d head straight for the library at the end of the day and would finish it before going home…he was driven more by compulsion than a love of learning, and became anxious if he didn’t have something in his sights to accomplish. [He] had to reach particular milestones by a certain age or else I wasn’t successful. [He told himself] that [he] wouldn’t have to work as hard once [he] was successful, and that [he'd] be happy. But [he] hadn't defined what success was and life was just a constant race…At the root of Jafery’s obsession with productivity is a fear of wasting time. He classifies everything he does as either productive or unproductive, and tries to minimise the latter. Buying groceries is productive because it keeps him alive, whereas a hobby is unproductive. [He tries] to turn unproductive things into productive things…Like all addicts, ‘productivity junkies’ are overly focused on a single aspect of their life – which is known as being ‘unidimensional’. The compulsion to satisfy the addiction overrides other potential sources of pleasure, such as spending time with loved ones…In Jafery’s case, he knows that spending time with his long-term partner is vital to his happiness, but he nonetheless struggles to consider it a productive use of his time.”

Obviously, I have never met or studied Jafery, but he appears to have developed his work tendencies from an early age and would fit some of the recent research that I have been doing with Dr. Pawel Atroszko on "study addiction" (which we have described as a possible precursor to work addiction – see references below). One of the most interesting things in the BBC article was Mudditt’s interview with Cyril Peupion who wrote the book Work Smarter: Live Better.

“Most people who come to [him] are high performers and very successful. But often the word they use to describe their work style is ‘unsustainable,’ and they need help getting it back on track. Peupion helps teams and individuals improve their performance by changing their work habits and making sure that the effort they put in at work is aligned with the overarching business strategy, rather than potentially creating work for work’s sake.”

Arguably the most interesting thing I read (given I like to view myself as "hyper-productive") was his claim that there are three“distinct extreme productivity types.” Peupion has called these three types the "efficiency obsessive," the "selfish productive," and the "quantity obsessed." Below are the descriptions of the three types taken verbatim from Mudditt’s article:

The efficiency obsessive: “Hyper-organised and obsessed with detail. Their desks are super tidy and their pens are probably colour-coded. They are the master of ‘inbox zero’. But they have lost sight of the big picture, and don't know the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.”

The selfish productive: “Is obsessed with their own goals and shuns collaboration. They are so focused on their own world that if they are asked to do something outside of it, they aren’t interested. They do have the big picture in mind, but the picture is too much about them”.

The quantity-obsessed: “Mistakenly equates productivity with output. They think; ‘The more emails I respond to, the more meetings I attend, the more tasks I do, the higher my performance.’ They face a real risk of burnout.”

Peupion’s claims that "quantity obsessed" individuals are the most common type “because there is a pervasive belief that ‘more’ means ‘better’ at work.” As far as I am aware, there is no empirical support to this assertion and I would be surprised if there were any data underpinning the three proposed types of extremely productive individuals.

What is most surprising is that I don’t fit any of the three profiles. I view myself as very organised, very tidy, and have an eye for detail, so some of my behaviour fits the "efficiency obsessive" type, but I have never lost sight of the "big picture," which appears to be the defining consequence. Some of my behaviour matches the "quantity-obsessed" because I equate outputs with productivity (but I don’t think it’s mistaken in my case because success in academia often relies on metrics to demonstrate productivity whether it’s the number of papers published, the number of books written, the number of citations, the amount of grant money, the number of Ph.D.s supervised, etc.). None of the behaviour listed in the "selfish productive" matches my own behaviour, especially as I love collaborations. My whole career has been built on networking and collaborations.

In a nutshell, I am the "happy workaholic." I work long hours and I work hard, but given there are few negative consequences, it’s hard to describe my behaviour as an addiction by my own criteria.

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(8): 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.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2016). Study addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study examining temporal stability and predictors of its changes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 357–362.

Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationship between study addiction and work addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 5, 708–714.

Atroszko, P.A., Demetrovics, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2020). Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, work addiction, burn-out and global burden of disease: Implications from the ICD-11. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17, 660. doi:10.3390/ijerph17020660

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

Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. & Atroszko, P.A. (2018). Ten myths about work addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 845-857.

Griffiths, M.D. & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1(3), 87-95.

Mudditt, J. (2020). When productivity becomes an addiction. BBC Worklife, August 10. Located at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200807-when-productivity-becomes-an-addiction

Quinones, C. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Addiction to work: A critical review of the workaholism construct and recommendations for assessment. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 10, 48-59.

Quinones, C. & Griffiths, M.D. (2020). Prevention and treatment of work addiction. In S. Sussman (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Substance and Behavioral Addictions (pp. 280-287). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.