Workaholics: Are Some of the Hardest Workers Battling With Psychiatric Disorders?

June 13th, 2016 by 

A workaholic, roughly defined, is someone who compulsively works to a degree that is far outside the norm and detrimental.  In that sense, workaholics are different than a person who simply "loves her job" or is merely a "hard worker".  It's someone who has an urge to be (or just appear) busy, even if not necessarily completing tasks.  Contrast that with a productive hard worker - or lampoon it like the gentlemen of Workaholics on Comedy Central.

Either way, being a workaholic is generally seen as a bad thing, even if some people willingly claim the title.

Workaholics: Picture of a stressed office worker

Look how stressed this fellow looks!

Why Bother Defining 'Workaholic' So Carefully?

Why did we go through all the trouble to lay out our priors on what a 'Workaholic' is in that introduction?

Other than to excuse a lot of hard workers from the label, a very interesting study came to us last week out of Norway, published in Plos One.

Researchers there surveyed 16,426 Norwegian workers looking for a correlation between signs of work addiction (our so-called Workaholic Syndrome) and psychiatric disorders such as OCD, ADHD, Depression, and Anxiety.  The choice of Norway was appropriate; the Nordic countries have some of the highest rates of depression, alcoholism and psychiatric disorders in the world with very high rates of people currently taking antidepressant drugs.

As the researchers defined it, Workaholism is:

“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” - Cecilie Schou Andreassen, Mark D. Griffiths, Rajita Sinha, Jørn Hetland, Ståle Pallesen, "The Relationships between Workaholism and Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders: A Large-Scale Cross-Sectional Study"

They used a 7 question scale to determine who the workaholics were, labeling anyone ranking 4 of the 7 as 'high'.

That gives us our first interesting piece of data: 1,287 respondents 'passed' the workaholic test - 7.8% of the Norwegian sample.  114 workers would have been labeled a workaholic if the criteria was all seven questions - that's 0.7% of the population being undoubtedly work-addicted.

But PK!  How good can a seven question self-reported survey actually be?

Better than you think!  Just using the rough self-reported criteria, there were huge gaps in the various psychiatric disorders found versus the less-workaholic Norwegians.  I reproduce some results here:


Hard Work and Modern Society

The study is obviously worth reading in full (or, hey, just skim the abstract - you'll come away enlightened either way), but let's concern ourselves with analysis and deep thought on this whole topic.

Work's relation to North American society is a funny thing - America itself (as we understand it today) was founded in part, by an incredibly hard-working set of... well, incredible risk takers.

Many of the earliest immigrant groups were alternatively tarred - or praised - for their so-called Protestant Work Ethic.  Some of the most important Protestant thinkers had many quotes devoted to work - witness John Calvin's "all men were created to busy themselves with labor for the common good" and Martin Luther's emphasis on work, fitness and charity "[t]his is why caring for our body is also a Christian work. If the body is healthy and fit, we are able to work and save money that can be used to help those in need".

For many generations, American citizens labored under these ideals, and it certainly echoes into today.  Consider that "The American Dream" has a work component too: Americans want the opportunity to work hard enough to provide a better life for their children than they themselves experienced.

Professions Where Hard Work - or Workaholism - is Expected... and Sometimes Leads to Substance Abuse

"You shouldn't have mentioned the stuff about Benzedrine. It's not that you got it wrong. It's just that I don't want kids who are thinking about going into mathematics to think that they have to take drugs to succeed." - Mathematician Paul Erdös to author Paul Hoffman in the Atlantic Monthly

Here's something funny about many professions: Doctors, Lawyers, Investment Bankers, and all flavors of STEM are simultaneously known for high earnings and sometimes 'crazy' hours. Those 'crazy' hours certainly can hurt work performance, but for many highly-skilled professionals hour 60 in a week still is more productive than the typical person's first.  So, while there is a mental aspect to being able to perform at a reasonable level for many hours a week - motivation, moxie, dedication - professionals lean on other crutches as well... such as drugs.

While nicotine has gone by the wayside, Americans particularly love to abuse one highly prized stimulant and mind-sharpening drug: caffeine.

(I'm guilty too - check the sidebar for another Erdös-esque quote.).

The superhuman desire to perform work at a very high level goes beyond just caffeine and beyond just white-collar professionals: it's not really a secret that truck drivers often abuse stimulants, militaries have a very interesting relationship with uppers, and athletes abuse everything from stimulants to beta blockers to anabolic steroids (don't tell me you're just learning this now!).

And, yes, for the naive: stimulants ranging from cocaine to methylphenidate (Ritalin) to methamphetamine pop up in the white collar professions as well.  And before I forget, they're also heavily abused by college students cramming for exams.

Beyond Personality and Drugs: Society's Contribution to Workaholism

Personality traits and easy access to performance enhancing drugs might not be the only factors leading to increased workaholism. The study mentions some technological factors as well, very much unique to today's  society:

"Via mobile technology hardware, work is highly accessible to anyone and anywhere, and has the potential to facilitate and enhance workaholism tendencies."

Got that?  Professionals today aren't really able to unplug... when your cell phone is connected to your work email, you might think "what's the harm in checking my mail at 11 PM?".  Also, too, there are legitimate reasons to be logged on late - you may have had a meeting with a group across the globe, then figured "why not knock out a few items off my checklist while I'm up?".

Contrast technology and those contrived scenarios with the average number of hours per week in general, which has noted to be falling for a long, long time (to be replaced, mind you, by leisure activities like television watching!  The substitution and income effects at work!).

That is, for all of the crazy stories we hear about investment bankers with cots in their offices, young lawyers pulling all-nighters racking up billable hours and interning doctors working 100+ hour weeks and sleeping on bunks in a closet, society in general has moderated its work quite a bit.

The study has something to say about that as well: "For some, workaholism has been described as a money disorder [25], and one study associated it with having a higher income [20]."

Indeed - but DQYDJ readers know we've written about the correlation of working hours per week and earnings before... I send you now to a vintage piece from 2011 on hours worked versus incomes earned.  The higher paying professions we're obsessed with and glorify also tend to have higher demands on your time - with great pay and responsibility comes a higher number of your precious 168 hours.

Caffeine, Stimulants, Long Hours, Psychiatric Disorders... What Can We Do For Our Workaholics?

As a member of the Software Engineering profession and a writer who often stays up too late to deliver DQYDJ articles and engineering projects to the world, I'm entirely unqualified to suggest a way to check out of Hotel Workaholic.  (I like to consider myself a hard worker though, not a workaholic... ask my wife when I'm not around to check.)

My thoughts on this piece come from a background of sometimes staying up too late to the detriment of my sleep schedule, and catching up the next day by consuming headache-inducing quantities of caffeine.

Don't worry about caffeine, though: CGP Grey convinced me it's okay.  (And yes, note how much coffee the Nordic countries drink.)

So I turn to you dear reader - is there some correlation behind this causation?

Are workaholics doing damage to their psychiatric health, are people with psychiatric issues becoming workaholics, or is the whole thing just one big coincidence limited to a few Nordic countries?  Is today's society producing too many workaholics?  Are you a workaholic, and how many workaholics do you know?  Should we worry about the copious amount of caffeine - and other drugs - being consumed in the pursuit of higher work performance for longer hours?

So many questions, but with such smart readers I really hope you'll let me know your thoughts.



PK started DQYDJ in 2009 to research and discuss finance and investing and help answer financial questions. He's expanded DQYDJ to build visualizations, calculators, and interactive tools.

PK is in his mid-30s and works and lives in the Bay Area with his wife, two kids, and dog.

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