People struggling with work addiction feel unwell even when they are working

November 26, 2023

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People struggling with work addiction feel unwell even when they are working

The mood of workaholics - individuals who suffer from work addiction—is on average worse than that of other people, even when engaged in the activity they are most passionate about: their work. Workaholism shares many similarities with other addictions, such as gambling or alcoholism. This is what emerges from a study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

What the researchers say: "The negative mood observed in workaholics may indicate elevated daily stress levels and that could be the cause of the higher risk for these individuals to develop burnout and cardiovascular problems,” said the lead author. “Furthermore, considering that workaholics often hold positions of responsibility, their negative mood could readily influence that of colleagues and co-workers. This poses a risk that organizations should seriously consider, intervening to discourage behaviors that contribute to workaholism.”

Several studies indicate that workaholics commonly experience a sense of unwellness, often accompanied by negative emotions such as hostility, anxiety, and guilt when they are unable to work as extensively as they wish. On the other hand, there are conflicting assumptions about the feelings that emerge in these people while they are at work. Some studies suggest that workaholics experience feelings of well-being and satisfaction during the workday, yet other research indicates that these positive emotions quickly transition to a prevailing dysphoric state characterized by irritation and depression.

To shed light on this aspect, scholars involved 139 full-time workers in the study, mostly employed in back-office activities. A psychological test was first used to assess the participants' level of work dependency. Afterward, the scholars analyzed the mood of the workers and their perception of workload using a technique known as "experience sampling method." This was done using an app installed on the participants' phones, which allowed them to send short questionnaires, approximately every 90 minutes, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., over the course of three working days (Monday, Wednesday and Friday).

"The collected data show that the most workaholic workers have on average a worse mood than the others," said the researchers. "So, it does not appear to be true that people who are addicted to work derive more pleasure from their work activity; quite the opposite, the results seem to confirm that, as in other forms of behavioral and substance addiction, the initial euphoria gives way to a negative emotional state that pervades the person even while at work.”

The results also demonstrate that, unlike other workers, workaholics, on average, consistently maintain a more negative mood throughout the day, with no significant variations attributed to the passage of time or fluctuations in workload. A diminished reactivity of mood to external stimuli implies a notable emotional flattening, a well-recognized phenomenon in other types of addictions.

“This element,” suggested the first author, “could stem from the workaholic's inability to moderate work investment, resulting in a significant decrease in disconnection and recovery experiences, and the parallel consolidation of a negative affective tone.”

Another interesting result that emerged from the study is that of gender differences. The relationship between work addiction and bad mood was in fact more pronounced in women than in men, indicating a greater vulnerability of women to workaholism.

Scholars suggest that this phenomenon may depend on an increased role conflict experienced by workaholic women, caught between the internal tendency to over-invest in their work and the external pressures stemming from gender expectations still deeply rooted in our culture.

These results warn of the dangers of workaholism. Work addiction can lead to significant negative repercussions not only on relationships with family and friends, but also on physical and psychological well-being. The so-called “overwork illnesses” can aggravate to the point of leading to death from overwork—a phenomenon with a not inconsiderable case history.

“Organizations must send clear signals to workers on this issue and avoid encouraging a climate where working outside working hours and at weekends is considered the norm,” the authors conclude. "On the contrary, it is necessary to foster an environment that discourages excessive and dysfunctional investment in work, promoting disconnection policies, specific training activities and counselling interventions."

So, what? The argument swirling around all addictions involves genetics. There is probably no single gene which disposes an individual to addiction, but rather a cluster of genes which are expressing in such a way as to cause the problem. Although hunter-gatherers use some substances—pot and magic mushrooms for example—which can be addictive for medicine and ritual purposes, there is no research showing that they become addicted to anything.

Addiction is therefore a function of the way we live and work. For example we are designed to “work” for about 10 hours a week. Any more causes us to become stressed and all addictions have their origin in mental or physical stress. The addiction is our system’s way of trying to alleviate the stress.

Undue stress is probably what causes the genes to express in dysfunctional ways.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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