Workaholism – the causes, symptoms and effects. Check what influence work addiction may have on your life.

05.10.2018 - Addiction, Articles, Mental health

In some ways, workaholism is a sign of our times. Striving to accumulate wealth and the rising pressure related to achieving continuous success make us work even more, while the word “workaholism” has embedded itself in common speech.

Devoting yourself to your work is seen as something positive, even noble and exemplary. Meanwhile, in studies it is estimated that approximately 5% of the population suffers from work addiction. In Japan, where much of one’s life is subordinate to work, while the Japanese spend even up to 70 hours per week in the office, this has led to the creation of the term “karoshi”, which means “overwork death”. European countries are following this path as well. Studies conducted by Cecilie Andreassen, PhD, demonstrate that 7.3% – 8.3% of Norwegians are addicted to work. Similarly, Zsolt Demetrovics, PhD, has shown that even up to 8.2% of Hungarians aged 18 to 64 work in a manner that carries the risk of developing work addiction.


What is workaholism?

Workaholism is a condition characterised by the constant inner compulsion to work or perform duties related to work. The constant focus of thoughts, feelings and behaviour on work results in detrimental influence on one’s functioning within other spheres of life, and upsets the balance between various important areas such as family life or passion. We can speak of workaholism when the excess preoccupation with professional matters starts to negatively impact our lives, but even despite that we nevertheless feel a discomfort when not working. Therefore, it is possible to work a lot, but still retain a balance between work and other values. The problems start when this balance starts shifting toward work. The term “workaholism” was first used in 1971 by Wayne Oates, who compared workaholism to alcohol addiction after identifying the symptoms of addiction in excess commitment to work.

Perfecionism or Workaholism

Workaholism causes and symptoms

It can be said that the world we live in significantly supports the development of workaholism. People who devote themselves to their work are valued by the business environment, accumulate more wealth, are admired and praised. It could even be stated that workaholism is one of the few addictions that do not involve any negative consequences at first glance, indeed, quite the opposite. Yet this is not true. An external image such as this means that persons addicted to work find it hard to seek help, even when they start paying a high price for their commitment to work.

Who is more susceptible to work addiction?

Workaholism is related to a great extent to the structure of personality. Persons with a high degree of perfectionism and a tendency for compulsive behaviours are more susceptible to work addiction. The inclination to impose very high demands on yourself, to reach the highest standards and the need to compete, together with a high degree of criticism and expectations of critique from others results in our being more prone to devote more time to work while giving up leisure time. An excess commitment to work can also be related to anxiety and frustration present in other spheres of life, e.g. in important relationships. In such situations, work can become a retreat or a way to cope with difficult emotions.

Workaholism symptoms

Work addiction is diagnosed based on criteria similar to that of other addictions. According to the ICD-10 International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, symptoms of work addiction include:

feeling an inner compulsion to perform activities related to professional work,

a subjective conviction concerning the difficulties in controlling behaviours related to work: difficulties in abstaining from performing professional activities, in controlling the time spent on performing activities related to professional work and in controlling the number of performed tasks,

occurrence of anxiety, agitation or malaise when attempting to stop or limit work, and the subsiding of these conditions when performance of professional activities is resumed,

spending increasingly more time at work, which results in the reduction of anxiety and the achievement of satisfaction or well-being that used to be attainable following shorter, regular working times,

progressive neglect of alternative sources of pleasure, former interests, passions or social roles in order to perform professional duties,

performing professional activities despite its harmful consequences – physical, health, mental and social – that are known to be related to devoting a lot of time to work.

At least three of the aforementioned symptoms must be identified over the span of the passing year to diagnose work addiction.

Can workaholism be dangerous? 

Losing yourself in your work can bring about many consequences. Worsening the relationships with your family and friends is one of the first outcomes of excess commitment to work. It results not only from the increasingly more common absences in family life, but also from the difficulties in “cutting” yourself off from work and professional matters upon physically returning home. Workaholics can spend time with their children or partners, but still answer phone calls or e-mail, or be tense and agitated by the state of not working. Thus they cannot focus on their loved ones and be with them “in the here and now”.

Health problems are another consequence. Workaholics are persons living in a state of chronic stress and pressure. Studies show that a person working over 11 hours per day (assuming an 8-hour working time) is even 67% more likely to experience coronary attacks. Cases of overworking that led to death have also been documented. Sometimes it is difficult to state unanimously whether overworking is the cause of someone’s negative condition, but workaholics often struggle with problems related to the cardiovascular system, such as: coronary attack or arterial hypertension, but also cerebral haemorrhage, cardiac failure and arteriosclerosis.

Workaholism dangerous


Workaholism and brain chemistry

The level of cortisol, known as the stress hormone, increases when we perform excessive work and are under continuous pressure. Cortisol leads to difficulties with sleep as well as concentration and memory problems. Simultaneously, when not granting ourselves the right to rest, we bar ourselves from positive reinforcement, which results in biochemical imbalances in the brain. This can lead to mood swings, anxiety or even slipping into depression. A negative mental condition is also conducive to managing emotions in the quickest way available, via alcohol or drugs. Workaholics become addicted very quickly by their desire to feel better or to turn even more efficient.


“Something that a perfectionist thought a success yesterday must be standard to a workaholic today.”


Work addiction leads primarily to emotional harm, which is the most difficult to spot for outsiders. The all-consuming stress means that work eventually stops granting any satisfaction whatsoever, while fatigue and discouragement become increasingly more common. Something that a perfectionist thought a success yesterday must be standard to a workaholic today. The increasingly rising pressure and compulsion to achieve further goals makes it hard to afford to rest, while the constant dissatisfaction with the results makes the workaholics feel as if they were trapped.

Workaholism – the first step to burning out

Another very common consequence of excessive work is occupational burnout. Christina Maslach, PhD, the lead researcher on occupational burnout, identified its three key dimensions:

Exhaustion – being both emotionally and physically overburdened with work, difficulties in resting, experiencing overwhelming fatigue even after a night’s sleep.

Cynicism and depersonalisation – resignation from personally important ideas, decrease in commitment to work. Burned-out persons become distanced from their duties, but also their co-workers, business partners or clients.

Ineffectiveness – the feeling of each new task’s being overwhelming. This damages self-esteem. Burned-out persons feel alone and misunderstood. Eventually their internal balance breaks down.

Occupational burnout is a very serious issue that must not be underestimated.

Workaholism and burnout

How to treat workaholism?

If we identify the symptoms of work addiction or occupational burnout in ourselves or one of our loved ones, it is worth it to seek help from a professional. Just as with other addictions, psychotherapy is the best method of treating workaholism. The psychiatrists and psychologists at The Kusnacht Practice are highly qualified and world-famous specialists who adapt the best methods of psychotherapy to the needs of every patient, including: cognitive therapy, biomolecular restoration, transcranial magnetic stimulation and family therapy. Treatment can also be supplemented with auxiliary measures such as: acupuncture, massages, meditation, yoga, art or music therapy.

After treatment is concluded, our specialists will support you in maintaining healthy habits and stress relief methods via telephone or Skype calls during particularly difficult moments.

Workaholism treatment

Give yourself the right to rest

 It is worth it to preserve healthy stress relief habits and maintain a balance between work and life outside it. Try to distance yourself, devote more time to your relationships with your loved ones and to yourself – to your passions and interests. The person who can afford to rest is more efficient at work, which has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies. Someone who is hurled into work may find it hard to maintain the necessary distance, but each journey begins with a small first step. The journey towards a healthy life begins by naming your problem and seeking help, and after that the positive effects of changes will come much faster than you might think.

Workaholism relax



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