Hiding Behind Work: Recognizing Work Addiction As An Expression of Anxiety

Anxiety and work often have a complicated relationship. For some, the omnipresent current of fear leads to severely impaired professional function, as anxiety prevents you from concentrating on the task at hand. For others, anxiety surrounding specific work-related responsibilities, such as public speaking, disrupts your ability to participate in important professional activities, confining you to work with minimal anxiety triggers as you seek to avoid emotional distress. Sometimes, however, anxiety’s impact on your professional life doesn’t come in the form of diminished ability to work, but in work addiction, also known as workaholism.

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Recognizing Work Addiction

In an era when employers are demanding longer hours than ever before and many workers are tethered to laptops and mobile devices day and night, workaholism may seem more like the order of the day rather than cause for serious concern. However, workaholism isn’t simply about how much or how long you work, it is a fundamentally disordered relationship with your work that often emerges as a maladaptive way of coping with emotional distress. Dr. Bryan E. Robinson, a psychotherapist and expert on work addiction, says, “It’s not about long hours. It’s about the inability to turn it off.” This inability to control your obsession with work, even as it threatens your well-being, is what catapults workaholism from simply an overzealous work ethic to a true addiction. Unlike substance addiction, however, work addiction can be an unusually difficult to recognize in a culture in which hard work and success are prized, venerated, and even fetishized. As Sarah Jacoby writes, “It’s an addiction that is often celebrated, actively enabled by, or even ingrained in the culture of a workplace, workaholism is particularly pernicious.”

Rising awareness of work addiction recently spurred researchers at the University of Bergen to develop a new diagnostic tool to identify workaholism. The Bergen Work Addiction Scale “uses seven basic criteria to identify work addiction, where all items are scored on the following scale: (1) Never, (2), Rarely, (3), Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Always:”

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • You spend much more time working than initially intended.
  • You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and depression.
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Scoring 4s or 5s on four or more of the criteria can indicate that you suffer from workaholism. Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen, one of the developers of the scale, believes that identifying work addiction is more crucial now than ever before, as new technologies and changing labor conditions encourage the development of workaholism. “In the wake of globalisation, new technology and blurred boundaries between work and private life, we are witnessing an increase in work addiction,” she says. And this increase can have serious consequences. “A number of studies show that work addiction has been associated with insomnia, health problems, burnout and stress as well as creating conflict between work and family life.”

The Damage of Work Addiction

Driven by the need to cope with overwhelming anxiety, workaholics throw themselves into work to the detriment of social relationships, physical health, and emotional stability. You miss your child’s piano recital and skip out on your anniversary dinner. If you are not physically at the office, work is always on your mind, preventing you from being truly present in your personal life. You can’t resist checking your email or taking work calls even while on vacation, experience uncomfortable anxiety when you are unable to work, and avoid healthy social interactions in favor of work projects. Brendan Gahan, a marketing consultant who often works 7 days a week, drinks eight cups of coffee a day, and sleeps next to his laptop and cell phone, says, “Pretty much every girl I’ve dated has ended up frustrated that I prioritize [work] over her. I’m not trying to sound like a psychopath here, but why would I break that momentum to go spend time with her?” According to Dr. Robinson, this attitude is typical:

A workaholic believes everything revolves around him. He’s the sun, and everyone else is a planet. The wife and children learn that their role is to support him so he can work, or think about work, 24/7. Children of workaholics often feel they must be perfect and have high levels of anxiety.

This disordered belief system typically leads to fierce resistance to criticisms or expressions of concern regarding your work habits from family, friends, or colleagues. Like all addicts, you are deeply invested in denying that you have problem, because acknowledging reality means you must face the underlying emotional pain you are attempting to escape. As a result, many work addicts are unable to stop their extreme obsession even in the face of marital breakdown, declining job performance, or when stress, long hours, and lack of sleep begin to take a physical toll.

The truth is that work addiction can be every bit as damaging as other forms of addiction, and the primary victim is often your own psychological health. Wayne E. Oates, the renowned psychologist who first introduced the word “workaholic” to the world in 1968, knew this on an intensely personal level:

I have concluded that I myself have an addiction that is far more socially acceptable than that of the alcoholic’s addiction. It is certainly more profitable. Nevertheless, when it comes to being a human being, it can be an addiction as destructive of me as a person as any other addiction. I am addicted to work.

Not only does work addiction emerge from anxiety, its very nature prevents you from addressing that anxiety in healthy, productive ways, creating deeper levels of suffering as you seek to alleviate your psychological instability. Constant work and thinking about work keeps you from engaging in the activities that allow you to restore emotional tranquility and creates ever-growing distance from the aspects of life that bring us relaxation, healing, and inner peace. While work may allow you to occupy your mind and body to temporarily avoid dealing with your true needs, you are only masking your problems and, in the meantime, allowing them to grow uninhibited in the background.

Concurrent Anxiety and Work Addiction Treatment

For a workaholic, taking time out to come to residential treatment can be an uninviting and even frightening prospect. Will you be able to call in to work? Check your work emails? You can’t possibly be expected to just not work! But for someone living with severe anxiety and work addiction, a residential program is often exactly the environment you need to begin healing. At Bridges to Recovery, our renowned clinicians have the expertise and experience necessary to guide you toward recovery from both anxiety and work addiction, and help you understand the complex relationship between your psychological and behavioral health. Through a personalized mix of individual and group therapies, you can examine the roots of your emotional distress and gain the insight and skills you need to create meaningful change in both your personal and professional life, strengthening your ability to nurture your mind, body, and spirit and nourish loving, healthy relationships. Here, you can begin to recover from the damage your anxiety disorder and work addiction have caused and create a strong foundation for ongoing personal growth as you come to understand what is truly important to you, how to remove obstacles to healing, and how to live an authentic and balanced life. With renewed self-awareness, emotional stability, and purpose, you can find freedom from addiction and open up a world of possibility.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for mental health disorders and process addictions, including work addiction. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one on the journey to healing.