Work addiction: increased risk of depression – stress – impact on the person’s social and family life


As a culture, we’ve come to value growth and productivity, making paid work not only a necessity, but a central concern in peoples’ lives. Yet this attitude towards work is harming us more than it’s helping, with research showing that workaholism (also known as work addiction) is a growing problem in the industrialised world.

And according to the findings of a recent study, work addiction is linked with poorer mental health.

Work addiction is a clinical condition characterised by an obsessive and compulsive interest in work. People usually work more than they’re required to, either by the workplace or because of financial need. Other characteristics include being concerned about their performance at work, rigid thinking and perfectionism, which is often projected onto others.

People with work addiction are driven to work excessively, despite the detrimental impacts this has on their personal health and wellbeing, and relationships.

People at risk of developing work addiction often have low self esteem, experience doubt about their performance at work, or have obsessive compulsive personality traits.

Numerous studies have shown the negative impact of work addiction on mental health. But a recent study on workers in France investigated why work addiction happens to better understand the impact it has on mental and physical health.

The researchers looked at a total of 187 workers from a range of different occupations and demographics, who were asked to answer four different questionnaires. They found that high work demands and people who worked in high pressure roles – for example managers with greater responsibilities – were the most significant factors contributing to the risk of work addiction.

Where this was accompanied by working longer hours than required and having an obsessive approach to work, there was an even greater risk of developing work addiction.

Women were also shown to be more predisposed to developing work addiction than men.

Although it’s not entirely clear why women were more likely to develop work addiction, other research has had similar findings.

Workers with depression were twice as likely to develop work addiction compared to those without a mental health issue. Poor quality of sleep, high levels of stress and low levels of overall wellbeing were also identified as high risk factors.

Although this study’s sample size was small, previous research has also shown that work addiction is associated with depression, stress, sleep disorders and lower mental health. Burnout and exhaustion were also reported.

Mental health

Work addiction is more common in industrialised countries where work performance is a measure of success. This suggests that neoliberal ideas about work are influential in increasing the risk of work addiction. These ideas place pressure on intensifying workloads and performance at work in order to promote economic growth. They also focus on increasing a person’s responsibilities at work.

Given the harms of work addiction, radical changes in both workplaces and society will be necessary. As I have arguedbefore, this would require society to stop viewing work as a pivotal tool of performance and growth, and instead place greater value and importance on the health and wellbeing of the worker, both individually and collectively.

Support and change can actually happen in the workplace itself, which is why it’s important for employers to recognise and address work demands in a positive way. For example, one study has found that increasing job security and opportunities for development lowered the risk of work addiction.

Other studies have suggested that work-life balance interventions could reduce the risk or work addiction. For example, if workplaces actively reduce working hours in order to give employees a chance to spend more time with their family, it can actually result in better work performance. And, fewer working hours may also reduce family conflict for workers, as employees are able to engage in family time more meaningfully.

Promoting work-life balance has also been shown to increase both physical and psychological health, and personal resilience for workers. Balancing time and energy used on work and personal life helps people feel better – subsequently both improving mental and physical health.

All this suggests that workplaces should develop work-life balance initiatives, provide opportunities for career development and increase job security to prevent work addiction from happening. These changes may also lower stress and absenteeism while improving performance.

But not all workplaces have these kind of strategies in place – and they can be hard to implement because of our culture’s focus on performance and economic growth. If you’re concerned you have or are developing work addiction, address the problem now if possible.

Seek support at work by talking to managers and peers if you can, ask for performance feedback, or even see if there is a way you can work to reduce some of your working hours. Speaking to mental health and wellbeing services can also help. If you don’t have support in your workplace, try talking with friends and family, and ask for their help in refocusing your time – such as having them remind you to take breaks from work.

Of course, better work-life balance will help, but this can be a very hard thing to do as it requires adjusting daily patterns and changing how you think and feel. But if you’re able to balance work with other activities – such as seeing family and friends, exercising, or enjoying hobbies – your mental health and wellbeing will improve.

Workaholism is a public health concern [1,2,3] with putative deleterious health outcomes among workers [1,2,4,5,6,7,8,9,10]. Workaholism, as an unconstructive way of involvement with work, is negatively influencing employees all over the world [11,12].

Despite the important role of workaholism in the health situation of workers, this role has not been extensively studied [13]. Workaholism known as work addiction risk [1,4,14,15,16,17,18,19] is mostly defined as “a compulsion or an uncontrollable need to work incessantly” [1,2].

This internal need, known as a behavioral disorder [4], is a crucial element in identifying workaholics [3,8,9,10,16,20,21,22] and meets the general criteria of addiction [2,3,4,23].

According to Clare et al. (2014, pp 3) “workaholics do not engage in excessive work due to external factors such as financial problems, poor marriage, or pressure by their organization or supervisor.” Indeed, the differentiating feature a workaholic behavior from similar behaviors, such as work engagement, is the excessive involvement of the individual in work when it is not required or expected [19].

Studies show that work addiction risk is linked to positive and negative outcomes. In a negative light, work addiction risk has been found to be related to lower mental health [24,25], poorer physical health [24] and higher work–family conflict [24]. In a positive light, work addiction risk was found to be linked with an increased level of job satisfaction [7] and career satisfaction [26].

Thus, the findings show that further research is needed to shed light on this line of research. This is particularly important in France as this country is one of the industrial countries with a growing number of occupations in Europe.

Workaholic individuals are found to report more job demands in terms of work role overload and work role conflict [27]. It seems that highly demanding jobs derive individuals to become workaholic. However, the influence of work addiction risk and health-related outcomes across various occupational groups has not been much investigated.

To the best of our knowledge, this association has only been examined for one occupation [8,28]. Considering the likelihood of workaholics in various occupational groups in France [14,29], this study aims to explore the link between work addiction risk and a wide range of health-related outcomes in France.

Second, this study applies the framework of job-demand-control Karasek’s model (Karasek, 1979) to test the work addiction risk-health-related outcomes link across occupational groups with different degrees of job demands characterized by this model. As the job demands-control model is an occupational stress model [30], it is designed to predict negative outcomes of work stressors such as workload included in this study.

The reason for the use of this model is that this model best considers the job demands one may receive in his/her job as well as the extent to which he/she can control the job demands. Another reason is that this model has been used for job design. This means the model is assumed to be able to predict or explain the link between workaholism and health-related outcomes over occupational jobs considering their job demands in such that occupations with more demanding designs are expected to be highly linked with work addiction risk.

Theoretical Framework

In recent decades, employers have shown that they are willing to design practices and initiatives to maximize the sense of involvement of employees with their occupation with the expectation to promote their job performance [31]. Although the practices may favorably promote job performance for the employers, they also may negatively influence the mental health of employees.

This is because, under such demanding circumstances, the workers may choose to spend more time at work dealing with job demands and get addicted to this working situation, known as work addiction risk. This may threaten the mental health situation of employees and results in negative outcomes [1,2,4,5,6,7,8,9,10].

This impact may even be more exacerbated by psychosocial factors. For example, Clark et al. (2016) studied the role of various psychosocial factors associated with work addiction risk and reported a negative association between age and workhalism, and a positive association between overwork climate, high job demands and reward system for high productivity with work addiction risk [32].

However, according to Taris et al. (2012) and Clark et al. (2016), a significant association between gender and work addiction risk was not found [24,31]. Moreover, they found that when the job demands are increased, the work addiction risk is more likely to be reported by workers with high job control than with low job control. Nonetheless, the associations have not been studied across various occupational groups with different job demands and job control.

We anticipate that work addiction risk might be differently experienced across various work environments; therefore, we use Karasek’s model to roll out how the design of participants’ jobs in terms of job demands and job control can lead to work addiction risk they may experience.

The Karasek’s model or “Job Demand-Control-Support model” (JDCS) mainly focuses on the contradicting tasks of the work environment [33,34,35] by dividing them into the following components: job demands (i.e., all physical, psychological, social or organizational aspects of a job that require continuous physical and/or psychological—cognitive or emotional—effort [35], e.g., time constraints [36], heavy workloads [37]); job control (decision-making latitude corresponding to the use and development of one’s skills and to decision-making autonomy, i.e., ability to make its own choice for dealing efficiently with challenges [33,35,38]) and social support (from colleagues and managers) [35,39].

The JDCS model assumes four various work environments (four quadrants) in which workers may experience a different level of job demands and job control: passive, low-strain, active, and tense/job-strain [33,37,38]. “Passive” jobs (low job control, low job demands) might be satisfying to a worker as long as the workers reach the set goal. The passivity of a job can also be based on successfully forestalling disruptions with smooth job demands.

“Low strain” jobs have high job control and low job demands. Individuals of this category are not particularly at risk of mental health problems, and it corresponds typically to creative jobs (i.e., architects). Workers identified as “active” have high job demands and high job control [33,37]. Job characteristics of those active workers are highly skilled occupations with responsibilities [33,34,37], such as heads or directors of companies.

Those highly skilled workers have very demanding tasks but they have high levels of decision latitude to solve problems. Finally, workers at risk of stress-related disorders are those within the “job strain” group (high demand and low control). For example, health-care workers from emergency departments are typically in job strain because they cannot control the huge workload [37].

Social support modulates the impact of job strain, positively when strong social support may overcome difficulties encountered at work, such as for emergency physicians who are very solitary or negatively in the absence of social support. Isostrain refers to workers in a situation of job strain with no social support. According to the JDCS theory, all jobs are different in terms of job demands and job controls.

Several nationwide studies on thousands of workers categorized occupations depending on the job demands and on job control [34]. It has also been suggested that workers who have a lot of authority in dealing with their strain levels participate more in working tasks. Exploring the relations between the risk of work addiction and perception of work has never been performed across various occupational categories with convenient sample size, and there are nearly no studies on the work addiction risk in the French population.

Therefore, we aimed to demonstrate the extent to which the work addiction risk is associated with the perception of work (job demands and job control), and mental health in four job categories suggested by Karasek’s model.

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Source: The Conversation


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