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Though outside my area of expertise, a friend asked last year that I contribute a piece to his compilation on the subject of addiction.  Due to a variety of environmental-structural observations, I had recently become interested in the concept of workaholism… And here are the thoughts that I passed on to my friend:

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The term “addiction” is used to classify any obsessive or compulsive behavior in spite of all negative consequences, characterized in particular by the acute lack of ability to stop and completely discontinue the activity.  Work addiction is a form of process addiction, dependency upon certain behaviors that alter brain chemistry and mood.  Not dissimilar to other types of addiction, an individual must typically reach a bottom before recognizing that a problem exists; this is especially true of workaholism, as our society customarily rewards people who exhibit what may be considered a strong work ethic – much more so than a person addicted to a drug such as heroin.  To that effect, workaholism has been described as our nation’s “best dressed addiction.”

For some, it may be challenging to distinguish a hard worker from a workaholic.  A hard worker has the ability to handle tasks effectively and efficiently; a workaholic exhibits the inability to prevent perfectionism from overriding efficiency, spending unnecessary amounts of time on minor details.  Over time, employers do not reap benefits from employing workaholics; hard workers actually have better attendance and better working relationships with their peers and subordinates than workaholics do.

Symptoms of work addiction include approval-seeking, as the addict’s identity is their work, which completely justifies their existence; issues of control, with attempts to gain control over even the wildly unpredictable; escapism, using work as an excuse to avoid handling real-world feelings and emotions; preoccupation and obsession with work, exemplified by a lack of balance and boundaries; and lying, minimizing past failures and exaggerating past successes.

Workaholism manifests in physical signs, as is the case with most forms of addiction.  These signs include chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath and dizziness; behavioral signs can include outbursts, insomnia and mood swings ranging from elation to desolation.  Workaholism also has devastating effect on personal relationships, as workaholics believe that the world revolves around them; they have been described as absent parents and spouses.

The Workaholics Anonymous World Service Organization recommends handling work addiction through Twelve Steps, which are identical to those utilized by alcoholics to handle their dependency.  As with any public health issue, prevention is preferable to treatment therefore the public health community must develop targeted interventions to raise awareness about and address the underlying causes of workaholism in our society.  In your opinion, what are the root causes of work addiction – and how can we effectively address it?  Please feel free to share your thoughts here.

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