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When does work become more than work — when does it turn into addiction? Learn about the signs and consequences of workaholism, and about the treatment options that may be available to you.

Cocaine. Heroin. Ecstasy. LSD. Crystal meth. Cigarettes. Gambling. Some things people get addicted to, frankly, seem like a bad idea from the outset — these are things most people would say it's better to stay away from altogether. But not all addictions are like that. Many people would say that alcohol, marijuana, and coffee serve prosocial purposes and can have psychological benefits, for instance, and far from everyone who uses them becomes addicted.

Then, there are behavioral addictions to processes most of us realistically have to engage in. These would include eating, using the internet, shopping, and of course working. We all work, whether it's to earn money at a job or to get knowledge and good grades at school.

Some people become addicted, mind you — workaholism is a very real phenomenon that may affect up to 18 percent of the working population even if it isn't a diagnostic category in the DSM-5, the current version of the "psychiatry bible". From the outside, work addicts may come across as simply very dedicated and productive, but a closer look will reveal that a workaholic suffers the same kinds of social and mental problems people with other addictions do. What's more, treating a work addiction is complicated by the fact that it's impossible to simply go Cold Turkey and abstain from the addictive behavior from now on — work addicts still have to work, but they need to learn to do it in a healthier way. 

So, what are the signs of a work addiction? What kind of consequences does workaholism have? And can this addiction be treated?

When work doesn't work for you any more: What are the signs of workaholism?

Some of the universal characteristics of addiction, as identified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, include:

  • Spending more time with the addictive substance or activity than planned, and more often than you wanted to. 
  • Losing so much time engaging with the addictive substance or behavior that it interferes with (other) responsibilities like work, school, social life, or family obligations.
  • Continuing to engage with the addictive substance or behavior even though you're aware of the negative consequences it has on your life. 
  • Finding yourself unable to change even though you want to and have tried to — which means a continued addiction. 

Characteristics of workaholism, specifically, would include a preoccupation with work, working as an escape from other problems in life, the frequency and duration of work robbing the person of their ability to do other things they need to do, feeling anxious or distressed when unable to work, needing to do more and more to achieve the mental "buzz" the addict is after, trying to stop working so obsessively but not being able to, and encountering all sorts of social and health problems because of the work addiction but continuing anyway. Workaholics are likely to be perfectionists, people who need a sense of control, and folks who have a constant need to stay busy. 

So, what's not a work addiction? People who genuinely get great enjoyment from their work and therefore work long hours, those who need to work long hours to meet their financial needs, and those who are, for instance, working very long hours because they've started their own business and its future success demands total dedication may not be work addicts. 

The feature that sets a work addiction apart from simply, well, working a lot, is — research has identified — feeling the strong psychological urge to work excessively despite the fact that you no longer enjoy your work or find it interesting.

Workaholics feel anxious when they're not working even though their addiction causes great problems in other areas of their lives. I'd add, I think, that to be a workaholic, you shouldn't simply be working as much as you do because you need the money or your employer requires the hours you're working. Workaholism is work beyond every reasonable need, and far beyond the point where you enjoy it. 

What are the consequences of a work addiction?

Studies that have investigated the negative impact workaholism has on work addicts' mental, social, and physical health have identified that being addicted to work leads to:

  • Severe stress — which can in turn have all sorts of physical health consequences
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low satisfaction with quality of life
  • Conflict or other problems in social life — married and coupled workaholics are likely to encounter conflict with their partners, while single work addicts are much less likely to find a partner
  • Burnout, in which the person becomes exhausted and depressed
  • Dysfunctional sleep
  • Weight gain
  • Physical pain

Can a work addiction be treated?

Yes. Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by periods of remission and relapse, so treatment is not going to be a "one and done" event — especially because work addicts still have to engage in the behavior they are addicted to after seeking treatment; they still have to work. So, maybe a work addiction cannot be "treated", but it can certainly be managed.

If you have recognized the signs of work addiction in yourself, you have a few options, though, and they center on talk therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy are two approaches that may benefit work addicts. These therapies help workaholics process thought patterns that are no longer helpful to them, thereby allowing them to change their behavior, and delve into the underlying reasons they are so drawn to work. Twelve-step programs for workaholics — very much akin to Alcoholics Anonymous — also exist. These programs create a new focus in life and allow workaholics to get support from others who understand what they are going through. 

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