Are you a workaholic? Keys to discovering a work addiction

In the 1970s, a person would have been considered to have a problem if they worked more than 50 hours a week; today the emphasis has shifted to the distribution of time

Workaholic o adictos al trabajo
A toxic corporate culture is a good breeding ground for workaholics, but that alone is not enough.Feodora Chiosea (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Karelia Vázquez

A few years before buying Twitter, Elon Musk had warned that working for him was no walk in the park. “There are way easier places to work,” he noted, “but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” According to Musk, when you love what you do, you are not actually “working.” Thus, you can do it without rest, every hour of the day and even without pay. This formula of making you feel both privileged (for doing something you love) and chosen (because you are changing the world) is a death trap for those who need external validation.

A toxic corporate culture is a good breeding ground for workaholics, but that alone is not enough. Psychologist Michael P. Leiter, an expert in labor relations and professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, explains that while the basic idea is that the workaholic works many more hours than expected, addiction to work is a more complex matter. The difference, he points out, is sometimes made by whoever labels the other person as an addict.

Leiter, who has studied the issue for more than 30 years, shares some examples: workmates can label a colleague a workaholic if that person works so much that they end up making the rest of them look bad. Or someone can call their partner a workaholic because instead of devoting time to the house and children, they prefer to work as much as they can. And then there are people who label themselves as workaholics to brag about being essential to their company.

Curiously enough, the hours that one must toil away in order to be considered an addict have risen sharply in recent decades. In the first definition from 1971, working more than 50 hours a week implied a high risk of addiction. In subsequent revisions, the researchers observed that exceeding that threshold was very easy in today’s labor market, so in later definitions they refrained from mentioning a specific number of hours and described workaholics as “those who always invest more time and energy in work than what is required.”

In modern descriptions, the attitude towards work is more important than time alone. Contemporary definitions speak of an obsessive pattern of high life investment in work, with long working hours that exceed any expectation.

Leiter confirms that there is no specific number of hours that marks a risk threshold, as everything depends on context, which can be highly variable: a young person with few family responsibilities can spend many hours learning a new profession and consolidating their career. Someone starting a new business has to work long hours in order to become established. But if someone with a guaranteed professional future and well-established working hours continues to work nonstop, then it is important to find what their real motivation is.

Seventeen years without a vacation

María Méndez lives in New York and works as a travel agent in charge of tourism and corporate entertainment. For years, her job was to organize leisure activities for the top executives of the BBVA and Santander banks. She was also responsible for the logistics of Beyoncé's tours. She started working at 23 and spent 17 years without taking a vacation.

Along the way she had four daughters who have been cared for by her mother and her husband. Her maternity leave lasted three days. “I slept with my cellphone in bed. I worked 24 hours every day. When I traveled, I didn’t leave the hotel room; I stayed in front of the computer. I don’t know the world and I’ve been everywhere,” she says over the phone as she walks on a treadmill in a Manhattan gym. In those years of exhausting work, she used to weigh 192 pounds. Now she has managed to stabilize at 132. “I didn’t buy clothes. I had three sweaters which I rotated throughout the week,” she recalls.

María was the role model of the office: “My boss used to say that everyone had to do the same as me: arrive first, leave last and give my clients my personal phone number.”

A four-day course on emotional management helped her identify her excuses for being addicted to work, which in her case were, first, the thought of not being able to pay the bills. Later, when her salary was raised, she told herself that if she didn’t keep up that pace, she wouldn’t be able to provide her family with a good standard of living. She ended up just saying that she was very committed to her clients.

In 2019, she took a vacation for the first time; she went on a trip with her family – and felt guilty. But María believes that today she is another person. “I have learned to say no, I have regained control over my life. The first thing I do in the morning is a list of what I am not going to do… up to 30 things can end up there in a single day.”

In November 2019, she created the Vacation is a Human Right Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping single mothers take vacations: “With our funds we pay the bills for that month off.” Méndez is also one of the organizers of the first Ibero-American Congress Against Burnout, which will be held in the summer of 2023 in the Dominican Republic. The goal of the congress is to dissect two of the most common impacts of work addiction: exhaustion and cynicism.

The addict’s brain

What happens in the brain of a workaholic? Professor Nestor Braidot, an expert in neuroscience applied to organizational management, explains: “When the brain’s reward system is activated, for example, in the case of professionals and businessmen who go after one success after another, it acts in a similar way (although not identical) to common drugs. If it is a person who ‘lives in the office’ to please their superiors, in the long run they may suffer from burnout syndrome, which is associated with a brain that is practically depleted of energy, exhausted.”

Various studies have found that approximately 8% of the global workforce is addicted to work. A large Norwegian study on the prevalence of workaholism found no differences between sexes, social classes, marital status or employees versus freelancers. The only singularity that they reported had to do with age: younger adults exhibited risky behavior that brought them dangerously close to work addiction.

For Braidot, a wide variety of causes could be behind the addiction to work. “In successful entrepreneurs and politicians there is passion; in those who use work as an escape to avoid other emotions there is unhappiness; in yet others, there is pathological perfectionism. There can also be psychological factors: one of my clients, the son of the owner of a candy corporation, became a workaholic to earn the respect of an authoritarian father,” he says.

One way to know if a person is a workaholic is to apply the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, developed in 2014 by researchers at the University of Bergen. On the following scale, you can rate your behavior from 1 to 5, where 1 is “never” and 5 is “always.”

· You think of how you can free up more time to work.

· You spend much more time working than initially intended.

· You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression.

· You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.

· You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.

· You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.

· You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

If you answered “always” or “often” (4 and 5) to at least four of the questions, you may be a workaholic.

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