Is ‘Workaholism’ Really a Genuine Addiction?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

  • What is Workaholism?
  • Work Addiction Scale

Are you a workaholic? Scroll down and answer seven questions to understand where your behavior lies on the Bergen Work Addiction Scale.

The term ‘workaholism’ has been around over 40 years since the publication of Wayne Oates’ book Confessions of a Workaholic in 1971. Despite increasing research into workaholism, there is still no single definition or conceptualization of this phenomenon.

In my own research into the topic, I claimed that the definitions used by other researchers didn’t really conceptualize workaholism as an addiction, or if they did conceptualize it as an addiction, the criteria were different to those used when examining other behavioral addictions such as gambling addiction, Internet addiction, sex addiction, exercise addiction, and video game addiction.

What is Workaholism?

Others claim workaholism arises when a person prefers to work as a way of stopping the person thinking about their emotional and personal lives…-Mark Griffiths

Some people view workaholics as hyper-performers, whereas others view workaholics as unhappy and obsessive individuals who do not perform well in their jobs. Others claim workaholism arises when a person prefers to work as a way of stopping the person thinking about their emotional and personal lives and/or are over concerned with their work and neglect other areas of their lives. Various researchers differentiate between positive and negative forms of workaholism. For instance, some view workaholism as both a negative and complex process that eventually affects the person’s ability to function properly. Others highlight the workaholics who are achievement oriented and have perfectionist and compulsive-dependent traits.

The most widely employed empirical approach to workaholism proposes three underlying dimensions: (i) work involvement, (ii) drive, and (iii) work enjoyment. Researchers have claimed that workaholism can be deadly and dangerous with an onset (e.g., busyness), a progression (e.g., loss of productivity, relationship breakdowns, etc.), and a conclusion (e.g., hospitalization or death from a heart attack). Psychological research has also shown links between workaholism and personality types, including those with Type A Behavior Patterns (i.e., competitive, achievement-oriented individuals) and those with obsessive-compulsive traits. The condition is generally characterized by the number of hours spent on work, and the inability to detach psychologically from work.

A review that I published … estimated a prevalence rate of about 10 percent in most countries that had carried out empirical studies.-Mark Griffiths

Reliable statistics on the prevalence of workaholism are hard to come by, although a review that I published with some colleagues in 2011 based on all published studies up to that point estimated a prevalence rate of about 10 percent in most countries that had carried out empirical studies.

Whether or not workaholism is a bona fide addiction all depends on the operational definition that is used. In one of my papers, I argued the only way of determining whether non-chemical (i.e., behavioral) addictions (such as workaholism) are addictive in a non-metaphorical sense is to compare them against clinical criteria for other established drug-ingested addictions. However, most people researching in the field have failed to do this. I operationally define addictive behavior as any behavior that features what I believe are the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse). Any behavior (e.g., work) that fulfils these six criteria would be operationally defined as an addiction.

In relation to workaholism, the six components of addiction would be:

  • Salience: This occurs when work becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behavior (deterioration of socialized behavior). For instance, even if the person is not actually working they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with work).
  • Mood modification: This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of working and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).
  • Tolerance: This is the process whereby increasing amounts of work are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in work, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend working every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.), that occur when the person is unable to work because they are ill, on holiday, etc.
  • Conflict: This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies, and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time working.
  • Relapse: This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive work to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive working to be restored after periods of control.

Work Addiction Scale

Using these components, I and some of my Norwegian colleagues at the University of Bergen developed a new ‘work addiction scale’. The scale has been psychometrically validated and comprises seven simple questions (see Figure 1 below). We recently used this scale on a nationally representative Norwegian sample and found that 8 percent of our participants were addicted to work using this new instrument.

Although the manifestations of workaholism are at the level of the individual, workaholic behavior is socially acceptable and even encouraged by major organizations.-Mark Griffiths

It’s also worth noting that some academics view workaholism as much a ‘system addiction’ as an individual one. Although the manifestations of workaholism are at the level of the individual, workaholic behavior is socially acceptable and even encouraged by major organizations. For employees, an organization can provide the structure and/or the mechanisms and dynamics for both the addictive substance (e.g., adrenalin) and/or the process (i.e., work).

Figure 1: The Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS)
Here are seven questions related to your job. Answer each of the seven questions by selecting the one response alternative (ranging from “never” to “always”) for each question.

How often in the last year have you:
Salience: Thought of how you could free up more time to work?
Tolerance: Spent much more time working than initially intended?
Mood modification: Worked in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression?
Relapse: Been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them?
Withdrawal: Become stressed if you have been prohibited from working?
Conflict: Deprioritized hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work?
Problems: Worked so much that is has negatively influenced your health?

All items are scored along the following scale: ”never”=1, ”rarely”=2, ”sometimes”=3, ”often”=4, ”always”=5. The BWAS is free to use for everyone, regardless of purpose.
Source: Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Hetland, J. & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a Work Addiction Scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265-272.

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