David Price, wellbeing expert and CEO of Health Assured, gives some advice on managing workaholics in your team.

A 2016 study carried out in Norway found that approximately 8% of the population are addicted to work.

What is work addiction?

Work addiction or “workaholism” is a phrase coined to describe an individual who has an unhealthy desire to achieve their career goals or simply cannot switch off from work.

Work addiction shares many similar behavioural patterns to other forms of addiction such as alcohol, shopping, social media and drug addiction.

Like an addiction, workaholism often stems from a compulsive need — whether to achieve status and success, or to escape emotional stress, regardless of the consequences it may have on their physical and mental wellbeing, and social and family life.

Despite there being an extensive amount of research and literature on the subject, work addiction is not currently a formally recognised medical condition or mental health disorder. However, work addiction is very real, and when recognised should be addressed by employers.

The thought of encouraging your employees to focus on other areas of their lives instead of their work may appear to be a counterproductive concept. However, in order for you to fulfil your duty of care towards your team members, and to ensure that your organisation is running as efficiently and productively as possible, a close eye has to be kept on the work–life balance of your team.

Signs of workaholism

Many organisations have work cultures where going the extra mile, such as working overtime to cover a shift, is praised and rewarded, so it can be difficult to recognise work addiction. However, some signs to look out for include the following.

  • Approval-seeking: Does work, and gaining approval from that, seem to be someone’s main motivation?

  • Control issues: Work can feel like something a workaholic has control over — this can be a sign that other aspects of life are spiralling.

  • Perfectionism: Unreasonable demands, incredible workloads and unrealistic goals, set both for themselves and others, is another sign.

Many traits of work addiction can be misunderstood as positive aspects of a good work ethic, eg putting extra hours in to ensure tasks are complete. However, it’s important that you monitor your team members who appear to repeat any of the above symptoms on a regular basis.

How to support employees suffering from work addiction

  • Work–life balance: Encourage your team to leave work on schedule and enjoy their time away from work. A healthy work–life balance is key to ensuring that your employees don’t develop unhealthy habits such as staying late regularly and taking their work home with them, risking burnout.

  • Manage workloads: If you find out your staff regularly work beyond their contracted hours and spend their annual leave completing tasks (also known as “leaveism”), then you should consider redistributing their workloads. This will help create a positive working atmosphere for staff to thrive in, as opposed to them being worried of what will happen if they don’t complete their work. In addition, discourage the practice of replying to emails outside working hours.

  • Lead by example: Constantly working unreasonable hours yourself does not set a good example to others, and can be damaging. Be seen to take time away from work, enjoy relaxing and emphasise a healthy work–life balance.

  • Don’t ignore it: It can be easy to misunderstand the warning signs of workaholism as commitment and dedication, especially if you begin to see positive outcomes. In the short term, your organisation will reap the benefits as more work will get finished over a short amount of time. In the long term, however, you may suffer from severe employee burnout, mental health absences and poor staff retention.

See also the feature: Work-related burnout — would you spot the signs?

Health Assured

If you’d like to provide your employees with access to a confidential telephone counselling service where they can get help with any problem they may be experiencing, including mental health and wellbeing issues, contact Health Assured, the UK’s leading employee assistance programme and wellbeing services provider on 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 7 October 2019