The seven signs that you work too hard

Ducking out of fun activities to do work isn’t a good sign.
Ducking out of fun activities to do work isn’t a good sign.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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Many people proudly describe themselves as workaholics, part of a modern culture where long hours and no free time are a sign of being successful and needed. But the term describes a real—and sometimes dangerous—addiction. Workaholism is defined by a recent paper as ‘‘being overly concerned about work, to be driven by strong and uncontrollable work motivation, and to spend so much energy and effort into work that it impairs private relationships, spare-time activities and/or health.”

Increasingly psychologists assess and sometimes recommend treating workaholism as an addiction in its own right. A new study in Norway published at PLOS One is the first truly representative look at how prevalent workaholism is in a country. Despite the perception of Scandinavian countries’ generous social safety net, which might lead one to expect better work-life balance, around 8.3% of the population are estimated to be workaholics. It remains to be seen how Norway stacks up against other countries when it comes to workaholism: There hasn’t been a comparative test done elsewhere.

Previous studies used much smaller or unrepresentative samples, and didn’t have a clear cut-off between workaholics and those who simply work a lot. This study uses the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, which asks a series of questions on work habits correlating to seven workaholism symptoms using addiction criterion:

(1) salience (i.e., preoccupation with work), (2) mood modification (i.e., work to escape or avoid dysphoria), (3) conflict (i.e., work comes in conflict with one’s own and others’ needs), (4) withdrawal (i.e., dysphoria when prohibited from working), (5) tolerance (i.e., work increasingly more to achieve the same mental and physiological effect), (6) relapse (i.e., falls back into old pattern after a period of improvement), and (7) problems (i.e., work so much that health, relationships, hobbies, etc. are negatively affected)

The 1,124 respondents to a survey of working people in Norway were asked to score themselves on a five point scale where 1 is “never” and 5 “always” when asked how often the symptom had occurred. High scores (4 or 5) in four out of the seven criteria indicates workaholism.

Interestingly, different items on the scale had very different levels of response. But it’s the combination that indicates a real problem:


When you think about workaholism as an addiction, and look at the negative effects on health, families, and wellbeing, it becomes more worrisome that nearly one out of 10 people in Norway show the signs (and numbers in countries with fewer societal perks might well be higher).

To treat the problem, researchers suggested everything from 12-step programs to behavioral therapy. But to this point, no real study of what treatment is effective has been conducted.

The problem is particularly acute because people don’t take it seriously, according to the authors:

Problems relating to work may not be conceptualized by those people suffering as something that needs treating. This is further compounded by the fact that work is an activity that society expects people to be typically engaged in eight hours a day. A non- work activity taking up eight hours a day (e.g., gaming, shopping, sex) would typically be pathologized whereas work is not because that is viewed as an activity that people should be doing above and beyond other such activities.