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Chained to the Desk: How Workaholism Can Kill You

Many people view "workaholism" as a virtue, or even a joke. But a spate of recent studies suggests the condition should be taken much more seriously.

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"We’re beginning to look at work addiction from a cellular level now," says Robinson. “The workaholic operates on the fight-or-flight response, which leads to a drench of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. It can lead to heart disease and heart attacks, diabetes, compromised immune systems, and gastro-intestinal problems. We know this, the studies are pouring out.”

 To some extent, we don't need people in white coats to tell us this—we've all seen how people "unwind" after a long day at the office. We're aware, too, that over-workers tend to consume too much coffee, to be susceptible to stress and depression, to have broken marriages, to exercise infrequently, to get less sleep and eat more bad food, etc. More and more, there's research to back up the conventional wisdom, but the end result is what it's always been—ill health. 

The Japanese have a word for this: "Karoshi," or death by work. Yet, according to figures from the International Labour Office, American workers put in more hours per year than their Japanese counterparts (1,792 hours compared to 1,771). A recent Expedia poll found that fewer than 40 percent of Americans use up their annual vacation time. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that Americans are putting in 20 percent more hours than they were in 1970. Increasingly, 60-hour work weeks are becoming the norm.

What this spate of new studies is telling us, though, is that work addiction is a global problem rather than an American one. This month, researchers in Spain predicted that the percentage of work addicts in that country’s work force would rise from the current 4.6 percent to 11.8 percent in 2015. And this fact—given Spain's especially precarious economic position—may help us get to the root of the sudden interest in the issue. 

If workaholism is the rise—and evidence suggests that it is—then we need to take a look at what role the global economic downturn has played in this. For sure, people are working longer hours to make additional income, and to make themselves indispensable enough that they skip the next round of redundancies, but can we make the leap from necessity and anxiety—or even obsession—to addiction?

This is one area where the research is a little thin, possibly because the question is philosophical rather than clinical. It could be argued that an upturn in over-work leads to an increase in usage—inasmuch as workaholism is said to have a chemical dependency side to it. As for the big psychological factor—what WA describes as "deriving our identity and self-esteem from what we do"—the ever-growing spectre of personal financial ruin, and the humiliation this entails, would seem to play into this.

Either way, to read the scientific papers making the rounds, and the hand-wringing media reportage they inspire, we are in the midst of an epidemic, surrounded on all sides by work junkies, harried, unhappy, smartphone-clutching individuals whose major arteries are just one company report away from exploding.  

As always, though, there are dissenters. A study out of France last year proposed that workaholism "can be constructive, generating welcoming outcomes for individuals, organizations and societies." A recent British study found that clock-watchers are more susceptible to anxiety and apathy than those who throw themselves into their work. A professor in the Netherlands, meanwhile, has coined the term "engaged workaholic." If you love what you do, the Dutch professor argues, where's the harm in doing too much of it?

Which is something else you probably wouldn’t say about an alcoholic, drug addict or compulsive gambler.

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