Large Norwegian Study Links Workaholism to Other Conditions

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Do you regularly and voluntarily put in more than a 40-hour work week? Push aside social commitments and family time so you can keep working? Feel anxious when you don’t have access to your work email? You may have a work addiction. And if you have that, say Norwegian researchers, you may also be depressed, anxious, or dealing with ADHD. They published their findings in the journal PLOS One.

Let’s rewind a little bit. Work addiction (we’re not going to call it workaholism, because nobody is addicted to "workahol") is a relatively new concept that means different things to different people. Here in the U.S., working long hours is considered a noble act. We boast about waiving our vacation days, never unplugging, and being the first one in the office and the last to leave. Our culture celebrates these martyr-like behaviors—even though they’re not actually increasing our productivity

Elsewhere—in Norway, for example—metaphorically chaining oneself to one’s office chair is considered a sign of mental illness. Europeans liken Americans' grim determination to keep working to sad lab rats on a sad lab wheel. Four years ago, the authors of the most recent paper actually developed diagnostic criteria for work addiction:

“Experiences occurring over the past year are rated from 1 (never) to 5 (always):

- You think of how you can free up more time to work.
- You spend much more time working than initially intended.
- You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness or 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 deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.
- You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health."

If you scored 4 (often) or 5 (always) on four or more criteria, congratulations! You’ve earned your Work Addict badge.

The research team’s latest project investigated whether work addiction was associated with other psychiatric problems. They surveyed 16,426 working adults, asking questions about their work behaviors as well as their general outlook on life.

Of all the respondents, 7.8 percent met the criteria for work addiction. And across the board, self-identified work addicts scored higher on all psychiatric symptoms. They were more than 2.5 times as likely to meet criteria for ADHD (32.7 percent vs. 12.7 percent); almost 3 times more likely to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (25.6 percent vs. 8.7 percent); almost 3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder (33.8 percent vs. 11.9 percent); and almost 3.5 times more likely to be depressed (8.9 percent vs. 2.6 percent).

"Thus, taking work to the extreme may be a sign of deeper psychological or emotional issues,” lead author and University of Bergen clinical psychologist Cecilie Schou Andreassen said in a press statement. "Whether this reflects overlapping genetic vulnerabilities, disorders leading to workaholism or, conversely, workaholism causing such disorders, remain uncertain." 

Here’s the thing, though: All of these respondents were Norwegian, and their addiction and psychiatric symptoms were self-reported. Imagine if they’d sent that survey around the U.S.; a whole lot more than 7.8 percent of us would qualify as work addicts. At the same time, work addiction is more acceptable—even valued—here in the U.S. Does that mean we're more likely to be clinically depressed, anxious, obsessive compulsive, or hyperactive than Norwegians are?

We’ll have to wait for future studies to find out.