Are you a workaholic? Many workaholics have psychiatric symptoms, study finds

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published May 25, 2016

Key Takeaways

Workaholism is associated with psychiatric disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, and depression, according to results of a large-scale study published online May 18, 2016 in the journal PLoS ONE.

The study surveyed 16,426 working adults in Norway, who filled out questionnaires that included standard self-assessments of ADHD, OCD, anxiety, depression, and work addiction, along with questions about demographic and work-related variables.

“Workaholics scored higher on all the psychiatric symptoms than non-workaholics,” said the study’s lead author Cecilie Schou Andreassen, PhD, Clinical Psychologist Specialist in the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen, in Bergen, Norway.

Workaholism has been defined as being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable motivation to work, and investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important areas of one’s life.

Results of this study found that 7.8% of subjects were classified as workaholics, which is comparable to an estimated 8.3% reported by a recent nationally representative study of Norwegian workers, the researchers noted.

Of the subjects classified as workaholics in this study:

  • 32.7% met ADHD criteria, compared with 12.7% of non-workaholics

  • 25.6% met OCD criteria, compared with 8.7% of non-workaholics

  • 33.8% met anxiety criteria, compared with 11.9% of non-workaholics

  • 8.9% met depression criteria, compared with 2.6% of non-workaholics

“Thus, taking work to the extreme may be a sign of deeper psychological or emotional issues,” Dr. Schou Andreassen said. “Whether this reflects overlapping genetic vulnerabilities, disorders leading to workaholism or, conversely, workaholism causing such disorders, remains uncertain.”

More research needs to be done to investigate these associations further, she added. For now, “physicians should not take for granted that a seemingly successful workaholic does not have ADHD-related or other clinical features. Their considerations affect both the identification and treatment of these disorders,” said Dr. Andreassen, who is also a visiting scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in Los Angeles, CA.

For instance, ADHD is probably under-diagnosed in adults, the researchers noted. While ADHD is often associated with unemployment and being unable to conduct normal work, the very opposite may also be true. “Individuals with ADHD may have to work harder and longer to compensate for their work behavior caused by neurological deficits. They may also be at risk of taking on projects and tasks impulsively—resulting in more work than they can realistically do within normal working hours,” the authors wrote.

Despite the increased attention on workaholism, few clinical interventions are available for it. Validated therapies for addictions—including cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing techniques—could be an initial approach, the researchers suggested. If further research uncovers a biological basis to workaholism, then medication might be an option, they noted.

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