The world has always recognized and rewarded hard work and those who are willing to push until burnout. They are put on a pedestal for their supposed professionalism, willingness to take undue workload and dedication to do all the weight lifting.
The lines between ambition and addiction blur as one is hailed for perfectionism in such a world. Most people wear the workaholic label as a badge of honor, yet, it must be noted that in reality, it is not the same as being dedicated or ambitious in life. On the contrary, studies point to a psychological state in workaholics, where success is not the end goal anymore. Work addiction often becomes an inescapable trap alienating one from all prospects of happiness. They are certainly perfectionists and can get any job done. But at what costs?
Individuals with work addiction often experience a range of unhealthy behavioral symptoms. It involves a compulsive preoccupied behavior with an uncontrollable need to work. Individuals work beyond their capacity and even when they're not expected to. Work is subconsciously used as a coping mechanism or an escapist route against underlying mental conditions or unresolved trauma from the past. Work addiction, like other forms of addiction, eventually foster a host of negative consequences ranging from restricted social circles, inept relationship dynamics with friends & family, and dysfunctional relationship with society at large. It is also known to manifest in various health problems. For example, 80% of workaholics run at a high risk of cardiovascular diseases as heavy work takes a toll on the mind and body. They are also more prone to neurological disorders and early onset dementia due to long-term stress and sleep deprivation, among other health complications.
However, despite the many similarities, psychological studies caution against workaholism or work addiction as just any other form of addiction (e.g., alcoholism or substance abuse). This is because work is an important aspect of our lives. It is thought to be the basis of our civilization, and most individuals positively engage in heavy work investment (HWI) for varying periods in their lives to serve time-specific goals. Add to it the national culture (for example, the phenomenon of "karoshi" in Japanese culture, which translates to "overwork death") and corporate motivations, and it becomes difficult to distinguish HWI from work addiction. The pandemic and work from home (WFH) model may have further distressed the work-life balance many already struggle to achieve.
So how do we assess work addiction? Here are a few key indicators.
Putting excessive amounts of hours into work, even when not required.
Poor sleep pattern and barely conscious of one's sleep-wake cycle, with frequent thoughts of work.
Obsessing over one's workload, deadlines and being paranoid about work-related performance.
Working to compensate for loneliness (further resulting in the lack of friends or a normal social life).
Working to overcome feelings of grief, guilt, or depression due to past trauma or current crisis within the family.
Refusal to accept or a defensive attitude toward one's detrimental behavior even when it negatively impacts your life.
(Note that while one or two of these are commonplace in our fast-paced life, experiencing more of them on a regular/ prolonged basis is indicative of behavioral symptoms common to workaholics.)
Lastly, like with other forms of addiction, work addiction is manageable. In many cases, a mental health assessment by health experts, followed by counseling (a one-on-one therapy) & a tailored treatment plan, helps to resolve both the underlying cause and the behavioral symptoms and improves the quality of life.
On a personal level, individuals can seek greater awareness of the above-stated indicators and consciously try to minimize them as a first step towards healing. It is important to learn the art of saying "No" to set healthy work boundaries. Corporate organizations must be cognizant of the demands they make from their employees and must actively work to mitigate causes that disturb the work-life balance.
If you know someone with work addiction, try to offer positive support. Healthline numbers and national organizations working for de-addiction may prove helpful.