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How work addiction negatively affects your mental and physical health

Workaholism is perhaps the most socially accepted addiction, but a new paper shines light on the serious health risks that accompany it along with which occupations are most at risk.

Credit: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock

Key Takeaways
  • Work addiction is a growing public health risk in industrialized nations, with some research showing that 5–10% of the United States population meet the criteria.
  • Workaholism comes with a variety of serious mental and physical health concerns such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, lowered immunity, substance abuse, or even chronic fatigue.
  • Employees at the highest risk for stress-related disorders are those in what researchers call the “tense” group category where job demand is high but job control is low, such as healthcare workers.

You may have noticed, from cultural trends ranging from productivity tracking apps to the rising use of prescription amphetamines, that our society is a bit work-obsessed. The glamorization of hustle culture is unavoidable, permeating our language: “Hard worker” and “go-getter” are offered as the highest of praises, “busyness” is worn as a badge of honor, while laziness is a mortal sin.

But this collective worship for work and productivity come with psychological and physical health risks. One being putting an increasing number of individuals at risk of work addiction, or workaholism — an increasing public health concern in industrialized nations. In fact, research indicates that around 5–10% of the United States population meet the criteria for a work addiction. And while we’ve turned workaholism into a sort of joke, it is an addiction, and like other addictions it comes with a variety of serious mental and physical health concerns such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, or even chronic fatigue.

This relationship between work addiction and health-related outcomes was the subject of a paper recently published by an international group of researchers in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. They also looked at what types of occupations are more likely to put someone at risk for work addiction.

Credit: AdobeStock

Workaholism is a behavioral disorder in which someone who typically works seven or more hours extra than others per week. Financial instability, marital problems, or pressure from a company or supervisor could all be reasons for working more hours than average. The difference is that workaholics are excessively involved in work when their employer doesn’t require or expect as much time as the individual is putting into the job.

Symptoms of work addiction include:

  • Putting in long hours at work, even when not needed
  • Losing sleep to engage in work projects or finish tasks
  • Obsessiveness with work-related success
  • Feelings of intense fear of failure at work
  • Sacrificing personal relationships because of work or using work as a way of avoiding relationships
  • Working to cope with feelings of guilt, depression, or shame
  • Working to avoid dealing with personal crises like death, divorce, or financial trouble.

The researchers wanted to demonstrate the extent to which risk of workaholism is associated with the perception of work, i.e. job demands and job control, and mental health in four job categories frameworked in the Job Demand-Control-Support model (JDCS).

This model assumes four work environments broken into four quadrants in which employees likely experience different levels of job demands and job control, control being the extent to which an employee feels agency and control over their work. They are:

  • Passive (low job control, low job demand)
  • Low-strain (high job control, low job demand)
  • Active (high job demands, high job control)
  • Tense or Job Strain (high job demands, low job control)

People with “passive” jobs may find satisfaction as long as the worker reaches a set of goals. Those in the “low strain” job group are not at high risk for mental health problems as the category typically corresponds to creative or imaginative jobs such as researchers. “Active” are usually highly skilled professionals with a high amount of responsibilities, such as directors of companies. Though they have demanding tasks, they usually have high levels of decision making to solve problems. Employees at the highest risk for stress-related disorders are those in the final “tense” group where demand is high but control is low. Examples include healthcare workers from emergency departments who cannot control the huge workload or flux.

A Different Form of Addiction:

The study was conducted in France, an industrial country with a growing number of occupations. The scientists collected data from 187 out of 1580 French employees who volunteered to participate in a cross-sectional study, which was conducted using the online platform WittyFit software. Participants were self-administered four questionnaires: the Job Content Questionnaire by Karasek, the Work Addiction Risk Test, the Hospital Anxiety and Depression scale, and socio-demographics. The researchers in the study divided all the participants on the basis of their occupational quadrants to investigate the relationship between work addiction risk and mental and physical health.

“One of the novelties of this research was to introduce vulnerable occupational groups to organizations or job holders. For example, if we find that work addiction risk can be found more in some occupations and may result in negative outcomes for the health situation then we can give this information to decision makers in this organization or, for example, to the ministry of health. And they could intervene to prevent this problem,” explained Morteza Charkhabi, associate professor at the Institute of Education at the HSE University, in a press release.

A Different Form of Addiction:

The research results found that jobs with high demands are the most strongly associated with work addiction risk, however the level of job control doesn’t play as influential of a role.

Individuals in active and high strain job categories are more likely to be at risk for work addiction than the other job groups. These workers appeared to be more vulnerable and, thus, suffer more, from the negative results of work addiction risk such as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and other health issues such as a weakened immune system and increased risk of disease.

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“We found that job demands could be the most important factor that can develop work addiction risk,” Charkhabi pointed out. “So this factor should be controlled or should be investigated by the organization’s manager, for example, HR staff, psychologists. Also another conclusion could be the job climate like job demands of each job category can influence the rate of work addiction risk. Thus in this study we actually focused on external factors like job demands not internal factors like the personal characteristics.”

The scientists found that those with higher work addiction risk have twice the risk of developing depression as compared to people with low work addiction risk. Additionally, sleep quality was lower in workers with high risk of work addiction compared to workers with low risk of work addiction. Interestingly, women had almost twice the work addiction risk than men.

Work addiction can be difficult to treat in a culture that accepts and rewards workaholic behaviors. The most common approach for treating work addiction typically involves outpatient treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or Motivational Interviewing (MI). You can learn more here.