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A Huge New Study Links Being a Workaholic to a Bunch of Psychiatric Disorders

“Taking work to the extreme may be a sign of deeper psychological or emotional issues.”

Workaholism, long-associated in some parts of the world with an industrious work ethic, can develop into a full-blown psychological addiction. Troublingly, a recently published study of 16,426 working adults in Norway found that those with workaholism are significantly more likely to have psychiatric symptoms.

Psychology researchers, led by Cecilie Schou Andreassen from the University of Bergen in Norway, found a strong link between workaholism and ADHD, OCD, anxiety, and depression. They found:

  • 32.7% of workaholics also met ADHD criteria, compared to 12.7% of non-workaholics
  • 25.6% of workaholics also met OCD criteria, compared to 8.7% of non-workaholics
  • 33.8% of workaholics also met anxiety criteria, compared to 11.9% of non-workaholics
  • 8.9% of workaholics also met depression criteria, compared to 2.6% of non-workaholics

The authors speculated that there are several reasons those with ADHD might suffer workaholism, including inattentiveness forcing them to spend excess hours trying to make up work, working extra hard to counter misperceptions of laziness, or working to alleviate restlessness. For those with OCD, workaholism could become a compulsion. Meanwhile, working hard is “praised and honored in modern society,” write the authors, and so could be used as a means to counter anxiety or depression.

The study, which was co-authored by researchers from Yale University and Nottingham Trent University, did not determine whether workaholism caused the psychiatric symptoms or vice versa.

Marianna Virtanen, an epidemiologist at UCL and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, was not involved in the study but has done previous research on long working hours. She postulates that, as many psychiatric disorders begin at a young age, they precede workaholism.

“It is also possible that the association is bidirectional; workaholism may exacerbate psychiatric symptoms in the long run,” she adds. “It is paradoxical, however, that people may first try to cope with their symptoms by excessive working.”

Participants were given tests to evaluate whether they met criteria for each condition. Workaholism, which has been formally defined as “being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation, and to investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas,” was evaluated using a work addiction scale that uses the same criteria (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse, and problems) as other addictions. The test asked participants to rate on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always) how often they experienced certain situations, including becoming stressed if they’re prohibited from working, or working so much that it affects their health.

The findings are self-reported and based on participants within Norway, suggesting they likely reflect national culture to some degree. However, the large sample size certainly suggests workaholism is not to be dismissed.

“Taking work to the extreme may be a sign of deeper psychological or emotional issues,” Schou Andreassen said in a statement. “Whether this reflects overlapping genetic vulnerabilities, disorders leading to workaholism or, conversely, workaholism causing such disorders, remains uncertain.”

Either way, if overwork is having a serious negative effect on your life, increasing workload could be a sign of distress rather than drive.