All work and no play

All work and no play
Hannah Harn discusses when working hard becomes a health risk


Everybody has had a long week, pulled an all-nighter, or worked overtime on different occasions throughout their life. However, sometimes an extra shift at work can turn into a much more serious issue.

Workaholism is often referred to as the compulsion to do work. It can manifest itself in taking extended hours, the inability to turn away from work while at home or on holiday, and a marked imbalance between work and personal lives.

“[Workaholism is] where a person has an addiction to work, an over-attachment to work,” says Patricia Murray of the Health and Safety Authority. Work begins to take over everything else “to the detriment of a balanced lifestyle”.

According to Patricia, workaholism and work-addicted tendencies are not uncommon, and they can affect anybody in any job. “Anyone with addictive tendencies can become a workaholic,” says Patricia. “Most addictions are transferable, so it’s the lack of boundaries or willpower or self-regulation in the person which can be used as a pointer or indicate potential danger.”

The symptoms of workaholism are often fairly evident. “Symptoms of the person [being] ‘in addiction’ are very obviously doing little else but work, talking about nothing but work and seeing everything that occurs in their work life as being all-consuming,” Patricia explains. “The only world is the work world.” For work-addicted individuals, there is no separation between the work life and the personal life.

Luckily, there are ways to tell if someone may be sliding towards a workaholic pattern. Cecilie Shou Andreassen of the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen in Norway developed the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, which outlines seven criteria by which work addiction can be detected and measured.

According to Andreassen’s study, people who can be identified as workaholics frequently engage in seven basic behaviours: trying to figure out how they can free up more time to work, spending more time working than intended, working in order to reduce feelings of anxiety or depression, ignoring others’ advice to cut down on work, becoming stressed when prohibited from working, deprioritising hobbies and leisure, and working to the point that their health, both physical and mental, begins to decline.

According to Patricia, because the lives of workaholics become wholly work-oriented, things can become “very, very dull for their friends and family”. They may find themselves pulling away from their families and friends and making little to no time for themselves.

Andreassen’s study also found that workaholics tend to be more agreeable, more nervous or impulsive, and more open to new incentives and impulses. These behaviours may lead them to take extra hours, work harder, and take on more difficult tasks.

Addictions, including the addiction to work, can be complex, but almost always have a base in personalities. “Addictions are hard to properly analyse,” Patricia says. “Theories differ. In my view, there is a personal or inherited component.

“There [may also be] a tendency to replace ‘missing things’ with work,” she explains. People who struggle to make friends, gain social links, undertake novel challenges, seek experiences and engage in learning may use their work to replace these missing pieces. “These people fill the gaps with work. It’s easier, if lazier, and so then it’s a self-perpetuating cycle as they really don’t have much going on apart from work so they work more.”

Workaholics may also be more at risk to be exploited by a dysfunctional culture or an uncaring manager. Setting defined boundaries for personal time as well as physical and mental separation from work can help to create a separation between work and personal life.

The key is not a balance in one step, but taking the time to define boundaries that can start to rebuild the separation between a person’s work life and their personal life, allowing them to spend more time with their families and friends.

“Supports would have certain rigid rules,” Patricia says. The clear establishment of a routine can be one of the first steps to setting these boundaries. “Like most addiction type supports, it’s all about sticking to tried and tested ‘systems’ for living because the person him or herself doesn’t have that inbuilt skill. Humility too is needed to understand our own erroneous ways.”

One of the first steps is recognising personal tendencies and behaviours that may point to workaholism. “Self-insight is the key to any addiction-type behaviour,” says Patricia. “They have to learn to understand why they do what they do. [They have to learn the] triggers which enable this behaviour and things that alleviate it. It might not be the same for all.”

Workaholism isn’t the only thing bringing down the workplace. According to a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), funded by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), job stress among employees in Ireland doubled from 8% in 2010 to 17% in 2015. While Irish workers were more likely to report the pressures of emotional demands and mistreatment, they were less likely to report time pressure than their counterparts.

The study also found that employees in the health, public administration, and manufacturing sectors were experiencing the highest levels of job-based stress. The ESRI’s Dr Helen Russell, who worked on the study, found that increased hours of work, increased time pressure, and increased emotional demands of work have contributed largely to rising reports of job stress in Irish workplaces.

“You can pick out which sectors were having higher levels of stress,” says Dr Helen Russell. “They see higher emotional and physical demands, and in some situations higher amounts of negative external influence.”

Changes in work culture have meant more to do at work, which can also contribute to stress at work. Increased pressure to get more done in less time and to work later or longer hours may contribute to workaholic behaviors, sometimes bringing on both physical and mental exhaustion in and out of the workplace.

Even though they begin to struggle to maintain that balanced and separate personal life, many workaholics don’t seek out help on their own. “If anything they may go to either occupational health specialists or workplace counselors, or their family might stage an intervention to them and get them around that way,” she said.

According to Patricia, the consequences of workaholism can range from marriage breakdown and alienation to mental and physical health problems and depression. “They’ll give them ultimatums about time spent away from work,” she says, “With the partner or kids or whoever.”

Patricia advises caution and receptivity to concern. “Take note of what those around you are telling you,” she suggested. “A week or two of busy times makes all of us focus overly on a job or piece of work, but if it goes on and stretches into months where its all work, then think about changing tasks, rearranging things.

“Try reducing your workload, increasing your support system or moving to a different or new job,” Patricia says. A change of pace can also help break the cycle of work-addicted behavior.

Lastly, she advises simply avoiding workaholic tendencies from the start. “Be aware that breakdowns don’t always give us notice of their impending arrival,” she says. “Its better to avoid one than recover from one.”