Addicted to Work?

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There’s nothing like a catchy name to give life to a syndrome, whether it deserves it or not. “Workaholic” is an excellent example. Without the word, it is unlikely we’d have a category for the pseudo-disease. Is there really a category of person who preferentially works to escape problems in their life? Is it an addiction?

A new study doesn’t necessarily give us a clear answer, but at least it shows when and how workaholism becomes a harm rather than a good.

Older research has associated the workaholic personality with worse coping skills, perfectionism and ill health. What was lacking (and still is) was the compulsive element you find in “regular” addictions. Compulsion, when it was found, had more to do with an obsessive compulsive disorder than anything particular to the working environment. In other words, this kind of workaholic would also have characteristic behaviors while not at work – in a sense, they carried their addiction with them wherever they went. There was no reason to distinguish the work environment from any other.

But wait a minute. Don’t we all know someone who is just too hard driving at work to be “normal”? What’s needed is a way to distinguish the toxic from the motivated. This new study clarifies the difference between “working hard” and workaholism. The hard worker is engaged with what they are doing. They bring their attention and effort into it and are self-motivated. In short, they care about what they are doing because of something that arises from within.

The workaholic is different. This person feels outside pressures to perform and these pressures are “released” when they persist in work-based activities. The workaholic is treating a type of inner stress. Just like the addict who must have a drug to feel better, they have to work to feel better. What’s interesting is that they aren’t usually as engaged as other hard workers and overall job performance isn’t higher among workaholics.

There was also a third category of hard worker found in the study – a blend of the workaholic and the engaged. These are not addicted to work at all, rather, they enjoy doing a good job and get fulfillment from it – not what the classic workaholic gains at all.

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