AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

You take a peek at the clock on your desk only to notice that it's almost 9 p.m. — but you've got a huge deadline tomorrow morning, and you're really looking forward to hearing your boss' feedback. You're finally in the home stretch of that ad campaign you've been working on for months, so you don't mind working some long days just to make sure that you're proud of the work you hand over.

Your colleague, however, is sticking around the office, too. They don't have any work that absolutely needs to be finished tonight or even this week. But they're there likely because you are — or because they've convinced themselves that they need to be for some other unfounded reason. So they find more work to give themselves so they're "too busy" to call it a day. The reality, however, is that they just need to prioritize their workload better and understand that working longer doesn't necessarily mean working better.

There's a difference between someone who works long hours and someone who is simply a workaholic. 

The true definition of workaholism has been debated over the years since minister and psychologist Wayne Oates first coined the term in 1971. He first called workaholism "the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly." But research since then has defined workaholism as everything from an addiction to work to a persistent behavioral pattern across organizational settings and a syndrome of high drive and involvement combined with low work satisfaction.

Malissa A. Clark, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, identified key commonalities across the multiple definitions of workaholism in an effort to come up with a complete definition. She more comprehensively defines it as being inclusive of the following components: 

  • "Feeling compelled to work because of internal pressures."
  • "Having persistent thoughts about work when not working."
  • "Working beyond what is reasonably expected of the worker (as established by the requirements of the job or basic economic needs) despite the potential for negative consequences (e.g., marital issues)."

Here's everything you need to know about what causes workaholism and how to tell if you are a workaholic yourself.

What causes workaholism?

Workaholism can be caused by a whole host of reasons. It's important to note, however, that Clark's research finds that workaholism and hours worked per week are only moderately correlated. So if you're wondering, how many hours does a workaholic work, you should not confuse workaholism with spending an atypical amount of time at the office.

Research has defined work engagement as, "a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication and absorption." And, while an engaged worker and a workaholic both appear to work harder and longer than others in the workplace, they are different.

"One key difference between workaholism and work engagement is the motivations underlying these behaviors," Clark explains for the American Psychological Association. "Whereas engaged workers are driven to work because they find it intrinsically pleasurable, workaholics are driven to work because they feel an inner compulsion to work — feelings that they 'should' be working."

Therefore, you can say that different motivations can cause workaholism. These motivations may be internal stress, the need to fulfill the basic psychological need for competence, or even the use of work as a distraction from facing emotional issues. Whatever the case, the bulk of studies (though not all), show that workaholism, generally speaking, doesn't lead to the best work outcomes.

So, is workaholic a disease? This depends on who you ask but, like all addictions, workaholism can wreak havoc on your life and the lives of your loved ones. 

5 recognizable signs of a workaholic

It's not always easy to see how one is a hard worker and one is an arguably irresponsible worker on the edge of burnout, however. No addiction is healthy — even if that's an addiction to work.

That's why it's important to do a little introspection to ask yourself whether you're just working a lot because you have to or because you're addicted. Here are five major red flags to tell if you are, in fact, a workaholic, too.

1. You experience psychiatric symptoms.

According to a Psychology Today study, workaholics score higher on all psychiatric symptoms than non-workaholics. Here are the specifics:

  • 32.7 percent met ADHD criteria (12.7 percent among non-workaholics)
  • 25.6 percent met OCD criteria (8.7 percent among non-workaholics)
  • 33.8 percent met anxiety criteria (11.9 percent among non-workaholics)
  • 8.9 percent met depression criteria (2.6 percent among non-workaholics)

If you find that you're working way more than most people around you, and you're experiencing symptoms of ADHD, OCD, anxiety or depression, this could be a red flag that you're a workaholic.

2. You feel like you "have" to work, when you really don't have good reason to justify it.

You always feel like you should be doing more and working longer because you feel like you "have" to be in order to show your value. But the reality is that you're more than likely doing enough, so long as you're meeting and maybe even already exceeding what's expected of you given your job responsibilities. 

Maybe you feel like you have to work because you see others staying late at the office or because you have set some seriously lofty goals for yourself to achieve in a short amount of time with not the best resources. Whatever the case, feeling like you should be working when you have no real reason to justify this feeling is a sign that you might be a workaholic.

3. You feel guilty when you're not working.

If you've taken a much-deserved day or week off from work to go on a vacation, using the paid time off days that are given to you. And, yet, you feel guilty for leaving the office even though you're entitled to take this time to yourself. You constantly check your phone to read emails and even respond to some, despite your OOO notice. 

If you have a difficult time unplugging when you're away from work, whether you're on vacation or just home for the weekend, it could be a sign that you're a workaholic. This, of course, shouldn't be mistaken for the times when you really do need to answer that urgent email or take that important call, despite being "off the clock."

4. You never feel like you're doing enough.

You might be experiencing stress surrounding feelings of not doing enough. Maybe you feel like you're not working hard enough or long enough, or you don't think you're earning enough for your age or your title isn't enough given your experience. So you're always striving to do more and accomplish more — not in the sense that you're setting goals for yourself and caring about your future, but in the sense that you can't see all that you've accomplished already. 

In other words, you're always looking at the glass half empty instead of seeing it as a glass that's half full. And it's taking a toll on your mental health.

5. You don't know how to say no.

Sometimes, you just have to say no. You have to turn down work that isn't in your job description that you simply don't have time to do. While you might want to lend a helping hand to show your colleagues and managers that you're reliable, constantly doing so may mean burning yourself out and sacrificing your own actual duties. And, when you're burnt out, you're no use to anyone. Feeling like you have to do everything for everyone all the time or you're failing at your job (even though it's not all part of your job) is one surefire sign that you're a workaholic.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.