Americans certainly work a lot – hundreds of hours a year more, on average, than workers in many other developed nations – and many of us know people we’d call “workaholics.” That term was coined in 1971 by Wayne Oates in his book “Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction,” in which he defined workaholism as a compulsion, or uncontrollable need, to work. Not everyone who works long hours has such a compulsion, but when work hours and attitudes negatively affect families, relationships, or quality of life, then yes, it can be considered a mental health issue.
The concept of workaholism has been refined over the past five decades, and since its introduction there have been many studies on work habits and those who seem to work too much. Not all of these studies have even agreed on a definition of workaholism. A 2019 paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions summarized some core components of workaholic behavior, including that it is problematic by definition and leads to negative consequences. In other words, people who love their jobs, work long hours, and are not negatively affected by their work habits are not workaholics. On the other hand, those who feel compelled to work, are preoccupied with work, have little to no control over how many hours they put in, and who continue to do so despite negative consequences [delete] are the people who have all the hallmarks of addiction.
As you might expect, work addiction is unhealthy – one study of 776 Japanese workers found that workaholics were more likely to suffer from both physical ailments and psychological distress, and reported lower satisfaction with their family life and their work life than those who were engaged in their work without being addicted to it. Tellingly, workaholics were also rated lower on job performance than their engaged, non-addicted peers.
Another study in the journal Work & Stress categorized people according to how much and how compulsively they worked. Positive workers were defined as those who were neither excessive nor compulsive in their work habits. Hard workers put in a lot of hours, but were not consumed with work. Compulsive workers were consumed with their jobs but didn’t put in excess time. Workaholics were those who both put in excessive time and were compulsive about it. In that study, those who met the criteria for workaholism were at much greater risk for having sleep disorders and heart disease than any of the other three categories.
The evidence certainly suggests that it’s the compulsion to work, not the number of hours worked, that’s the problem. Personally, I love my work and I put in many hours doing it, but I also strive for balance in my life – I cook, exercise, take long walks, and spend time with family and friends. I recommend reading my guide to living life in balance, especially as we grow older. If you or someone in your life appears to be suffering from a work addiction, I would suggest counseling to address it and to help them achieve a healthier approach to work.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Atroszko PA, Demetrovics Z, Griffiths MD. “Beyond the myths about work addiction: Toward a consensus on definition and trajectories for future studies on problematic overworking.” J Behav Addict. 2019;8(1):7-15. doi:10.1556/2006.8.2019.11 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7044606/
Marisa Salanova, Angel Arturo López-González, Susana Llorens, Mario del Líbano, Ma Teófila Vicente-Herrero & Matias Tomás-Salvá (2016) “Your work may be killing you! Workaholism, sleep problems and cardiovascular risk.” Work & Stress, 30:3, 228-242, DOI: 10.1080/02678373.2016.1203373
Shimazu A, Schaufeli WB. “Is workaholism good or bad for employee well-being? The distinctiveness of workaholism and work engagement among Japanese employees.” Ind Health. 2009 Oct;47(5):495-502. doi: 10.2486/indhealth.47.495. PMID: 19834258. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19834258/