Is Workaholism an Addiction?

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph by Will Storr asked ‘Are we a nation of workaholics?’ and posed the question whether workaholism is a recognised addiction.

There is no generally accepted medical definition of workaholism. DSM IV* (the Bible for diagnosis of mental illness) does not mention it.  So is workaholism an addiction? Some learned academics (such as Professor Robert West of University College London) are sceptical, saying that it is in human nature to indulge in compulsive behaviour in spite of the knowledge of severe negative consequences.

In Japan they see things differently.  A nation of compulsive workers, they even have a word for death from overwork (karoshi). This was cited as the main cause of the fatal stroke of Prime Minister of Japan Keizō Obuchi, in the year 2000. There have been WA (Workaholics Anonymous) meetings in Japan for several years but in general, karoshi in Japan is not viewed negatively.

One Japanese WA member is quoted as saying ‘Karoshi  is the modern version of seppuku (ritual suicide). It is considered an honour, the ultimate sacrifice.

In the UK it is quite respectable to be a workaholic though the term is usually used in a jokey way. Indeed there is a general assumption that to truly succeed in the workplace, you have to be a workaholic. Workaholism is often seen as a badge of honour.  The UK media seem to encourage this idea too.

However, according to the Daily Telegraph, there is a growing Workaholics Anonymous movement and more and more people are presenting themselves at doctors’ surgeries with symptoms of ‘burnout’. Economic worries seem to increase the problem – a lot of people seem to think that they have a duty to work obsessively, despite the negative consequences for their relationships and health.

The past decade has seen an increased awareness of behavioural addictions with gambling, gaming, shopping and viewing porn being very much in the news.  All these contain an element of escape from reality and there may be a part of this in workaholic behaviour too.

At its most extreme, workaholism can fulfil all the diagnostic criteria for a disease of addiction (the DSM IV cites: “preoccupation, increased tolerance, withdrawals, repeating the behaviour, adverse effect on lifestyle, negative effect on moral values and relapse”).  For many people however, working excessively long hours to the detriment of health, home and happiness is simply business as usual and it should not be pathologised.

For most overworked and stressed-out people in the UK, what is needed is a re-evaluation of priorities so that a proper balance can be found in their lives. Some counselling may be helpful in this. Karoshi should not be an option.

* The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders http://www.psych.org/practice/dsm