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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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You're sitting at your desk, scrolling through the Alcoholics Anonymous website, when your boss walks up behind you. Not the best career move you'll ever make, perhaps.  But let's say you're looking at the Workaholics Anonymous site instead, the section about how even when you're not in the office you're still toiling away. What then? Does your boss give you a talking to, or does he give you a raise?

This rather glib question captures something important about how society views work addiction. Recently, a business strategy website published an article with the headline "Four Famous Workaholics (And The Secrets of Their Success)." It's hard to imagine any other addiction eliciting this kind of approach: "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Junkies," say, or "The Sipping Point."

The fact is, people see workaholism in a different light from other dependencies. It's known as the "respectable addiction," but this doesn't quite capture the prevailing attitude toward the condition. Indeed, many balk at the idea that it  is a condition. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—which lists caffeine as a dependency—doesn't even recognize work addiction. Workaholism is something Bill Gates has, and surely no one's going to suggest that this guy needs to go to a support group. 

 

Support groups, nonetheless, exist. Founded in 1983, Workaholics Anonymous (or WA) currently has a little over a thousand members, and holds meetings around the world—Paris, Sydney, London, Reykjavík, Bangkok. Testimonials in its newsletter contain lines like "I was addicted to activity. How to grapple with this baffling malady?" Well, there's the requisite 12-step program, for one, and the equally familiar appeal to a higher power. But, again, WA must contend with the fact that many people don't view the malady as baffling so much as they do either virtuous or slightly comical. 

"People don’t take this seriously—they either laugh at workaholics or dismiss them," says psychotherapist and  Chained to the Desk author Bryan Robinson, who is widely recognized as being one of the world’s leading experts on workaholism. “The work ethic is an ingrained idea in our society. What’s wrong with working hard? Hard work got us to the Moon!” He goes on to call this attitude “the glorification of an illness.”

Things, however, may be about to change. This year, research institutes from around the world have released a slew of studies clarifying what work addiction is and how it affects the people who have it. In April, Norwegian and British researchers developed what they call "The Bergen Work Addiction Scale," a standardized list of criteria ("You spend much more time working than originally intended") aimed at helping people identify if they have an actual addiction rather than a tendency to work too much.

In March, meanwhile, Psychology Today cited recent research that outlines four basic types of work addict, namely (to paraphrase): The manic perfectionist, the stress junkie, the muddled multi-tasker, and the guy who never seems able to let a project go. An article in the same publication last year explored the narcissism and sundry neuroses that underlie the disease. Such categorizations may, on the surface, seem largely academic, but there is real-world aim here: namely to make people aware that they have an identifiable condition, and therefore make it more likely that they will seek help. 

And it is becoming increasingly clear that workaholics do indeed need help. Researchers in New Zealand have found that people who work at least 50 hours a week are up to three times more likely to face alcohol problems. Earlier this month, the American Journal of Epidemiology reported on a global study showing that over-workers are between 40 and 80 percent more likely to suffer heart disease than others. The lead researcher of that study had previously found that middle-aged people working more than 55 hours a week tend to be disproportionately slow-witted, and to be more at risk for dementia. 

 
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