Term warfare: ‘Workaholism’ and work addiction are not the same

Reliable statistics on the prevalence of individuals addicted to work on a country-by-country basis are almost non-existent. Only two countries (Norway and Hungary) has carried out nationally representative studies. Norwegian studies led by Dr. Cecilie Andreassen reported that approximately 7.3%-8.3% of Norwegians are addicted to work using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale. A Hungarian study led by Dr. Zsolt Demetrovics reported that 8.2% of the 18- to 64-year old population working at least 40 hours a week is at risk for work addiction using the Work Addiction Risk Test.

In a comprehensive literature review that I co-authored using US data, provided a tentative estimation of the prevalence of work addiction among Americans at 10%. Some estimates are as high as 15%-25% among employed individuals although some of these estimates appear to relate to excessive and committed working rather than a genuine addictive behaviour Others claim that the rates of work addiction are high amongst professionals (e.g., lawyers, medics, scientists). Such individuals may work very long hours, expend high effort in their job, delegate rarely, and may not necessarily be more productive. It also appears that those genuinely addicted to work appear to have a compulsive drive to gain approval and success but can result in impaired judgment, poor health, burnout, and breakdowns as opposed to what might be described ‘enthusiastic workaholism’ where few problems are associated with the behaviour.

Word cloud on the subject of workaholism.

Illustration with word cloud on the subject of workaholism

Last month, I and two of my colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions examining various myths concerning work addiction. One of the myths we explored was that ‘work addiction is similar to other behavioural addictions’. While work addiction does indeed have many similarities to other behavioural addictions (e.g., gambling, gaming, shopping, sex, etc.), it fundamentally differs from them in a critical way because it is the only behaviour that individuals are typically required to do eight hours a day and is an activity that individuals receive gratification from the local environment and/or society more generally for engaging in the activity. There may also be some benefits from normal [and excessive] work (e.g., financial security through earning a good salary, financial bonuses based on productivity, international travel, free or reduced medical insurance, company car, etc.). Unlike other behavioural and substance addictions where one of the key criteria is typically a negative impact on occupational duties, work addicts cannot negatively impact on the activity they are already engaged in (except in the sense that their addiction to work may impacts on work productivity or work quality due to resulting psychological and/or physical illness).

In some respects, work addiction is similar to exercise addiction in that it is an activity that should be a part of people’s lives and often has some benefits even when engaged in excessively. Such activities have been described by Ian Brown as ‘mixed blessings’ addictions. For instance, in the case of exercise addiction, problematic exercise that interferes with both job and relationships can still have some positive consequences (such as being physically fit). However, it should be emphasized that such positive consequences are typically short lasting, and in the long run, addiction will take its toll on health (even exercise in excess is physiologically unhealthy in the long run in terms of immune function, cardiovascular health, bone health, and mental health). Furthermore, some research suggests that work and exercise addiction have also similar personality correlates different from other addictions, namely high conscientiousness. This might contribute to the fact that work addiction is so perplexing because this personality trait is consistently linked to better health.

Another myth we explored was ‘work addiction and workaholism are the same thing’. The issue of whether ‘workaholism’ and ‘work addiction’ are the same entity depends on how these constructs are defined. For instance, I have argued that any behaviour that fulfils six core components (i.e., salience, conflict, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and relapse) should be operationalized as an addiction. These six components have also been the basis of many psychometric instruments for assessing potential addictions including work addiction (such as the Bergen Work Addiction Scale that I co-developed and was published in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Scandinavian Psychology). The empirical research carried out by myself and others over the last five years concerning ‘work addiction’ is theoretically rooted in the core addiction literature whereas ‘workaholism’ncludes a wider range of theoretical underpinnings and in some research is a construct seen as something positive rather than negative. Arguably, in popular press and in common everyday language ‘workaholism’ is often used as a positive notiono describe very engaged workers, which adds significantly to the confusion about the two terms.

‘Workaholism’ is arguably a generic term that throughout the literature (as well as by lay people and the popular press) appears to equate to excessive working irrespective of whether the consequences are advantageous or disadvantageous. There is clearly lack of precise dictionary definitions of ‘work addiction’ and ‘workaholism’, and there is no reason to assume they could not be used as synonyms. However, the common use of the term ‘workaholism’ to denote anything related to high involvement in work may suggest that for practical reasons in the professional literature on work addiction, understood within addiction framework, it would be advisable to limit usage of this term. While, it is almost impossible to control natural usage of terms, preference for ‘work addiction’ in addiction literature would be a way to emphasize the addiction framework in which the phenomenon is being conceptualized. In short, ‘work addiction’ is a psychological construct while ‘workaholism’ is arguably a more generic term.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., Kravina, L., Jensen, F., & Pallesen, S. (2014). The prevalence of workaholism: A survey study in a nationally representative sample of norwegian employees. PLoS ONE, 9, e102446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102446

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2012). Development of a work addiction scale. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 53, 265–272. doi:10.1111/sjop.2012.53.issue-3

Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Sinha, R., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2016) The Relationships between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. PLoS ONE, 11: e0152978. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0152978

Brown, R. I. F. (1993). Some contributions of the study of gambling to the study of other addictions. In W.R. Eadington & J. Cornelius (Eds.), Gambling Behavior and Problem Gambling (pp. 341-372). Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

Griffiths, M. D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Workaholism is still a useful construct. Addiction Research and Theory, 13, 97-100.

Griffiths, M. D. (2005b). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191–197

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Workaholism: A 21st century addiction. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 24, 740-744.

Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. & Atroszko, P.A. (2018). Ten myths about work addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Epu ahead of print. doi: 10.1556/2006.7.2018.05

Griffiths, M.D. & Karanika-Murray, M. (2012). Contextualising over-engagement in work: Towards a more global understanding of workaholism as an addiction. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1(3), 87-95.

Paksi, B., Rózsa, S., Kun, B., Arnold, P., Demetrovics, Z. (2009). Addictive behaviors in Hungary: The methodology and sample description of the National Survey on Addiction Problems in Hungary (NSAPH). [in Hungarian] Mentálhigiéné és Pszichoszomatika, 10(4), 273-300.

Quinones, C., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Addiction to work: A critical review of the workaholism construct and recommendations for assessment. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 10, 48–59.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 710 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 16, 2018, in Addiction, Compulsion, Exercise addiction, Psychology, Work, Workaholism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Mark

    Not sure what alerts you have on your posts but are you aware of a troubling comment on your necrophilia blog? Not sure what your options are but I thought I would flag it. I wanted to respond to it but, frankly, I have no desire to be anywhere near that guy’s radar.

  2. Lol lots of people who call themselves workaholics and say they work eighty hours a week are actually getting high and having affairs at work and hiding out at the office to avoid going home and facing their family. Have you ever been in a corporate environment? Honestly. Eighty-hour work week = 30hrs goofing off, 20hrs telling everyone how busy you are & politicking, 30 hours work, maximum. Organizational behavior is all the same; a the work is being done by a few people who nobody likes because they’re “no fun” while all the fun people fuck around and complain about the “work” they’re too lazy and useless to do anyway.

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