I lived next to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on the north shore of Long Island for a year. “The Lab,” as it’s known, is home to Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of human DNA, and many other dedicated and successful scientists. I was fortunate to meet a number of them, and they come to mind when I think about what work addiction is and is not.
They were passionate about science and they worked tirelessly. One of them wrote a book called We Can Sleep Tomorrow, which tells us a lot about how they operate. It was not unusual for them to work through the night, and they didn’t always sleep the next day. Sometimes this meant neglecting their families. It usually meant neglecting their own self-care. Not a lot of life-work balance happening there. But would you say these guys were addicted to work?
I can’t generalize about whether they had work addiction, or whether they were just deeply engaged in their pursuit of science. Nor can I speak of individual cases because I didn’t get to know them well enough. But I do think such distinctions are determined largely by what’s motivating the urge to work beyond what’s expected: Are we moving toward something or away from something?
The idea that you can become addicted to a behavior has become accepted by researchers: gambling addictions, exercise addictions, and internet addictions are pretty well established as behavioral addictions, or process addictions.[i]
Here are some indications that you may be addicted to a behavior:
- Salience: the activity becomes the most important thing in your life.
- Mood modification: doing the activity makes you feel better at first.
- Tolerance: you need to spend more time doing the activity to get the high.
- Withdrawal symptoms: when not doing the activity you feel uncomfortable.
- Conflict: a battle evolves within yourself or with people around you about how much time you spend in the activity.
- Relapse: you try to stop the activity but fail.
Notice two themes here:
- Activity that felt good at first becomes necessary simply to keep from feeling bad.
- Avoidance of bad feelings comes to be, or always has been, the motivation for the addictive activity.
The research regarding work addiction specifically is still emerging. It’s not the kind of calamitous problem that has foundations clamoring to fund it. But while researchers disagree about just what constitutes work addiction, many conclude that work can become destructively addictive.[ii]
Take this test designed by Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, The Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS),[iii] to see whether you might have a work addiction. Ask yourself whether you do the following: (1)=Never, (2)=Rarely, (3)=Sometimes, (4)=Often, and (5)=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 deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health
If you respond ‘often’ or ‘always’ on at least four of the seven items, it indicates that you might have a work addiction.
Moving Toward and Moving Away From: John and Frank
Notice in particular number 3 from this self-test: working in order to reduce guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression. That’s moving away from a feeling rather than moving toward it.
Let’s compare these motivations in two different people to see how they actually look.
John works long hours at his job as an attorney. He loves the challenge his career presents. He likes solving problems and catching mistakes when he edits documents. He enjoys advising his clients and delivering the finished product to them. When he finishes work he goes bike riding, spends time with his wife or reads. Whether he’s working or playing, he’s moving toward what he enjoys and what’s good for him.
Frank is also an attorney and works about as many hours as John. While he’s not crazy about the work, it sure beats the alternative. When he isn’t working he’s restless, anxious, empty and depressed. Insecure, really. He has a gnawing feeling that there is something he should be taking care of and isn’t. He was a star in law school, but never really believed what they said about him. He still fears he’ll be found to be a fraud. He dreams of being chased. He drinks a lot to let go and watches television to divert himself when he can’t work. He likes the idea of vacation but usually feels miserable once he gets there. He’s increasingly isolated. He’s always moving away from uncomfortable feelings, not toward the things he enjoys or values.
Work Engagement Versus Work Addiction
John and Frank serve as good examples of the difference between work engagement and work addiction, terms coined by psychology researcher Wilmar Schaufeli at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Schaufelli says that work engagement is characterized by a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind, including vigor, dedication and absorption. Work addiction is characterized by a need to work that’s so exaggerated it endangers health, reduces happiness, and deteriorates interpersonal relations and social functioning.[vi]
John is work-engaged. Frank is work-addicted.
Motivation: What Are You Working For?
Whether you are work engaged or work addicted is determined not just by the amount of time you spend working, but also by your motivation for working. Clearly, even with the best motivation for work, spending all of our time working is not healthy. And our motivations are never pure. But if too much of the motivation is to avoid feelings of insecurity or to avoid disapproval from others, it can lead to desperate over-working and a poor work life-balance.
Some people are compelled to work because they feel passionate about it and find it rewarding. Others who have become work-addicted were originally motivated by positive feelings—moving toward the good feelings of mastery that come with achievement. But they began using work to alleviate feelings of insecurity, using work to move away from those bad feelings rather than toward the good feelings. This becomes a deeply entrenched habit, and because it really doesn’t solve the problem, it actually can make us feel worse.
Then you’re just pushing that rock up the hill again and again.
With reflection, attunement to the body, and careful attention to the feelings that drive us we can become aware of our motivations and make more conscious decisions. With commitment and intention we can return to our original motivations, the deep compelling urges that originally inspired us to work hard, and ask whether those are still being honored.
[i] M. D. Griffiths, “A ‘Components’ Model of Addiction within a Biopsychosocial Framework ” Journal of Substance Use, 10 (2005).
[ii] M. D. Griffiths, “Workaholism Is Still a Useful Construct.,” Addiction Research and Theory 13 (2005).
[iii] Andreassen, C. S., M. D. Griffiths, J. Hetland, and S. Pallesen. “Development of a Work Addiction Scale.” Scand J Psychol 53, no. 3 (Jun 2012): 265-72. Used with permission.
[iv] Andreassen, C. S. “Workaholism: An Overview and Current Status of the Research.” J Behav Addict 3, no. 1 (Mar 2014): 1-11.
[v] Di Domenico, S. I., and R. M. Ryan. “The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research.” Front Hum Neurosci 11 (2017): 145.
[vi] Schaufeli, W.B., Salanova, M., González-Romá, V. and Bakker, A.B. (2002a), ‘The measurement of engagement and burnout: a confirmatory factor analytic approach’, Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 71–92.