Are you a work addict or hard-working?

New measurement tool allows employees to gauge their compulsion
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/15/2012

Derek LaCroix has helped many distressed members of the legal community deal with overwork and work addiction. Often they are forced to seek help because they’ve become erratic or offensive at work and are causing staff turnover, said LaCroix, executive director of the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“They are still high billers, but they just aren’t getting along with people and nobody can work with them,” he said.

Some are able to do their job but have no life outside of work, along with relationship issues. Many are exhausted and have other addiction or mental health issues.

And some of the work addicts go on to seek formal treatment, said LaCroix.

“These are very serious, there’s no mistaking it — they can’t function almost.”

But work addicts can be comforted by work, so it’s very tough to ferret them out, he said. And while substance addictions present changes to a person’s physical appearance, behavioural addictions are less noticeable.

“Here’s the thing: When does it shift from being a good, committed, hard worker who really is dedicated to the job and happens to be one of those people who thrive on hard work — and there’s a lot of those — when does it move over the line to an addicted process? That’s where there needs to be attention to behavioural aspects, the bigger picture of life and deeper reflectivity.”

A new instrument could help. The Bergen Work Addiction Scale allows people to gauge if they are non-addicted, mildly addicted or a workaholic. More than 12,000 Norwegian employees from 25 different industries participated in the development of the scale.

A person might be a workaholic if he scores “often” or “always” on at least four of the following seven items:

• You think of how you can free up more time to work.

• You spend much more time working than initially intended.

• You work 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 de-prioritize hobbies, leisure activities and exercise because of work.

• You work so much it has negatively influenced your health.

“We wanted to develop a short and user-friendly scale that can be used in research and, as well, clinical settings,” said Cecilie Schou Andreassen, lead author and associate researcher in psychology at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Work addiction increasing, says researcher

In the wake of globalization, new technology and blurred boundaries between work and private life, there is an increase in work addiction, said Andreassen. While work provides most people with income, meaning and a social life, addicts are driven by other compulsive forces and feel work is the most important thing in their life, using it to escape other issues, she said.

“You have people (who are) very passionate about work, they are engaged and they spend many hours on work. But when we talk about work addiction, there’s a negative impact here that causes you problems,” she said, including insomnia, health problems, burnout, stress, and conflict between work and family life.

Work addiction tends to be associated with higher levels of psychological distress and medication use, said Ronald Burke, professor emeritus of organizational studies at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

And there are consequences for work units and organizations as a whole, he said. For example, potential tensions can arise between workaholics and workers who do not want to follow their lead.

But there are some sectors where that intensity is expected, he said. And unlike people who work a lot of hours, work addicts are about the why and the how.

“‘Work hours’ per se doesn’t tell you much, but it’s really why you work those hours, your motivation, and how you work those hours. And by how, we’re talking about, ‘Do you work in a perfectionist kind of way, do you work to prove yourself because of low self-esteem?’ or whatever.”

But the definition of a workaholic or work addict is still in flux and some of the measures are found to be wanting, so there is a need for a new tool, said Burke.

Denial hard to overcome

However, denial would make the Bergen scale a challenge, said LaCroix.

“The ones that are actually work addicts would probably throw it away or, if they looked at it, would score fairly high which would somehow trivialize it,” he said. “If it’s an actual addiction, there’s going to be a lot of denial and delusion. However, I’m always in favour of putting it out there, at least enlighten (people) — it’s better than nothing.”

A work-addicted person becomes emotionally crippled and addicted to power and control in a compulsive drive to gain approval and recognition of success, said Barbara Killinger, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and author. There are also “pleaser” workaholics who can’t say no, whom workaholics love to hire, she said.

“The narcissism is the real evil of workaholism because the more you think you’re right, you have to have your own way, your own point of view, et cetera, that gets into a whole lot of problems when you start controlling people.”

But a self-reporting scale isn’t effective, she said.

“Certainly to label them is going to be counterproductive because they’ll just completely deny it and get really defensive and more fearful,” she said.

“The denial is huge — they don’t have a problem, you have the problem. There’s a lot of projection and a lot of use of defence mechanisms and, gradually, as they get sicker psychologically, those start not to work. And so this self-loathing underneath the arrogance starts to break through and they can get so they can barely function. But that’s a long process.”

Denial may be difficult to overcome, said Andreassen. One way to deal with it in treatment is to assess the readiness to change and motivation to change behaviour. Motivational interviewing is another approach, by itself or in combination with other approaches, to deal with therapeutic resistance. Another option is to have family members or co-workers rate the person, she said.

And the Bergen scale may be effective as a workaholic, in answering the questions, may gain new insights about his addiction, even if he is not giving honest answers, she said.

Helping addicts

Certain personality traits make people more prone to work addiction, such as ambition, insecurity, perfectionism and narcissism, said Andreassen. But some employers also value excessive work, rewarding workaholics with promotions or big offices.

Workplace programs about balance and work-family issues and time management can help combat the issue, she said, as can managers and leaders who set a good example by prioritizing breaks.

Internal and external consultants can also ensure the right person is doing the right job and providing needed resources.

“You want to avoid both under- and overload, so establishing somebody’s goals and defining their job future and so on can be important. And managers can also be trained to help them recognize their own as well as their employee’s needs,” said Andreassen.

Work addicts, like most addicts, are good at hiding their problems, but the growing emphasis on work-life balance could help, said Killinger.

“If it becomes a bad thing to take your technology home — and a few companies will not let their employees take them home — that can help, but it has to be a culturally accepted thing.”

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