Would you recognise work addiction?

Couple working on laptops at kitchen tableIn today’s busy world it is all too easy to fall into the trap of working to excess. Nicola Jagielski, of Health Assured, suggests ways in which employers can help their staff to maintain an effective work-life balance.

A healthy work-life balance is a vital part of good wellbeing. Being fulfilled (and well rewarded) at work, as well as satisfied with our social and home life, is something we all aspire to. But for some people, the ‘work’ part of that balance takes over completely – and work addiction can be a very real and potentially dangerous condition.

Hard work is, of course, a positive thing, and should be encouraged. Unfortunately, this can also mean that some people who are suffering from work addiction can go unnoticed. Sometimes, a person working unreasonably long hours just seems dedicated. But a work addiction, fundamentally, is a coping mechanism which can mask emotional distress, physical pain and other signs of low health.

How can I recognise work addiction?

Researchers at the University of Bergen have developed a method for spotting work addiction (’workaholism’). On their scale, there are seven criteria, which are scored from one to five (one meaning ‘never’, and five meaning ‘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, but haven’t listened to them.
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • You deprioritise hobbies, other leisure activities and exercise, because of your work.
  • You work so much that it negatively influences your health.

If you rank highly on at least four of these criteria, it may suggest that you’re a work addict. But, of course, it’s not always easy to get someone to sit down and fill out a questionnaire – so here are a few signs to look out for in employees:

  • Approval-seeking: Does work, and gaining approval from work, seem to be their main motivation?
  • Control issues: Work can feel like something a workaholic has control over, which may be a sign that other aspects of their life are spiralling.
  • Perfectionism: Unreasonable demands, unachievable workloads and unrealistic goals – set both on themselves and others.
  • Preoccupation with work: People with addictions tend to fixate. A workaholic often obsesses over their tasks and priorities.
  • Lying: Another sign of general addiction, a work addict may lie about their work habits, successes and failures.

How can I help someone with a work addiction?

Addiction is a disease, and the best way to fight it is with professional help. But you can put supporting measures in place:

  • Encourage a good work-life balance: This is vital. Make sure people have a set number of hours. If someone is contracted to work 40 hours, encourage them stick to it! Being visible at work no matter what (presenteeism), is detrimental to a good, healthy home life.
  • Emphasise results: Rewarding employees for their achievements, rather than long times spent on projects, helps to instil a sense that work should only be done at appropriate times.
  • Lead by example: We’ve all read stories of CEOs who would work 200-hour weeks if it were temporally possible. That’s not a good example to set to others, and for most, it can be damaging. Be seen to take time away from work, enjoy relaxing and emphasise that work-life balance.
  • Build routines: Start every day with a meeting setting out the tasks ahead, and spend the last 30 minutes of every day discussing how it went. People will be conditioned to hit the morning with the best they’ve got, and they’ll learn to wind down before heading home.

Of course, if you suspect that someone has a genuine problem with addiction, you should encourage them to seek appropriate professional services. But by taking the above steps, you should see improvements in both the productivity and happiness of your workforce.

About the author

Nicola Jagielski is association director of clinical services at Health Assured, a provider of health and wellbeing solutions. She advises employers on how to encourage and develop a healthy workplace, while outlining best-practice guidance on how to combat and control workplace stress.

Image: Getty Images