Addicted to our desks?

When I look around me I see that it is becoming more and more acceptable to work long hours, evenings, weekends and for work to ‘take over’ our lives, often to the detriment of our health and well-being.

I see this so frequently in academia, in my fellow PhD students and in the academics I meet. People often joke with each other about being a workaholic and it has become somewhat of a status symbol, but for some of us it is a real addiction, and a very challenging one at that.

Yes, I consider myself a recovering workaholic.

I’m certainly a work (!) in progress, but I feel like I’ve come a long way in the last few years and am able to manage my work addiction. It is something I feel strongly about and I want to share some of what I have learnt. This post is the first in a series that will focus on breaking the habit of working compulsively. I’m going to dismantle the concept of workaholism and share some of the things that have helped me to restore balance.

This week I want to talk about what addiction is, what purpose it serves, the challenges of recovering from workaholism and also some of the warning signs.

What is an addiction?

An addiction is defined in many ways. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that it is “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity“. This makes sense, and is easy to see in the context of alcohol, drugs and yes – work.

But what purpose does an addiction serve?

Pickard (2012) talks about addiction in terms of drug and alcohol in patients experiencing severe psychological distress due to comorbid psychiatric disorders. For these individuals consuming substances allows them to experience an alleviation of the distress they are experiencing. But not all distress has to be severe in order to lead to addiction, and not all addictions require inpatient treatment.

For me personally, addiction serves as a distraction. Working long hours distracts me from a feeling, situation or emotion I might be experiencing, one that is uncomfortable and I would rather ‘keep in the box’. Classic avoidance. In this sense, addiction has a purpose in that it prevents me from experiencing painful or upsetting emotions. This might be due to a recent event for example, or may boil down to a questioning of self-worth.

Ultimately, for me, working compulsively allows me to avoid things that need to be faced. Though working long hours, being tired and feeling stressed might not be great, it isn’t as bad as what my mind believes feeling the ‘real’ stuff will be. Addictions are a way of masking a bigger issue. We see this in the treatment of addiction whereby often it isn’t actually about the behaviour that needs to be addressed, it is about something much different and deeper, perhaps childhood trauma, relationship issues or something else. Until an acknowledgement of the distracting nature of an addiction is made, it is very hard to crack it.

What are the challenges of recovering from work addiction?

Though most addictions have common factors, there are some aspects of an addiction to work that make it particularly difficult. For instance, most of us are required to work, in order to make a living, pay our way and exist in the world. So unlike addictions to behaviours such as drugs, alcohol, sex or gambling, abstinence is rarely an option.

Addictions surrounding food, spending, exercising or working are difficult to approach because they cannot be completely eliminated from our lives. Instead, we have to learn to work in ways that are effective and manage our approach to things. Although difficult, in some ways I think this is positive. It would be possible to stop a behaviour and believe that we are ‘cured’ of our addiction, but actually, having to face it every day and manage it can arm us with some incredible skills and knowledge about ourselves that can only lead to good things.

What are the warning signs that you might be a workaholic?

The concept of work addiction is not new, and has been studied for a long time. However, what is the difference between a hard worker and a work addict?

The University of Bergen in Norway have developed a symptoms checklist with seven criteria to determine the possibility of having a work addiction. They are:

1. You think of how you can free up more time to work.

2. You spend much more time working than initially intended.

3. You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and/or depression.

4. You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.

5. You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.

6. You deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.

7. You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Answering yes to any of these points is an indication that perhaps your approach to work isn’t as healthy as it could be. We aren’t alone though, back in 1996 Porter claimed that one in four employed people were workaholics. It would be very interesting to see how this statistic has changed in the last 20 years.

One of the main signs that I look out for is a sense of anxiety around not working. If the thought of not working creates fear around things not getting done, then that is understandable (though not necessarily a true belief). If however, the thought of not doing work creates anxiety about not having anything to do or not knowing what to do with myself, then I know that is a warning sign – I’m distracting myself from something. Sunday’s always used to be a challenge for me, I’d have so much time on my hands that everything I had successfully avoided during the week would surface. Thankfully now things are different.

Another sign for me is ignoring the fruits of my labour. This means that when I achieve something, meet a deadline or hit a target I simply tick it off the list and move onto the next task – with little or no acknowledgement of my achievement. Again, I’m some determined to ‘stay busy’ in order to keep myself distracted that I can’t even stop long enough to acknowledge what I’ve done and reward myself for it.


In the next post I’ll be talking about some of the underlying beliefs around work, productivity and success. The first step to creating some awareness, which allows action to be taken in order to regain balance.

Workaholism is a real thing, and it is frequently ignored or passed off as a quirk. If you feel that you might have a work addiction I’d urge you to look into resources online and getting some support. There is freedom from it, and a way to work that feels healthy but productive, and allows room for the joys in life. After all, if there is no fun or joy, why are we even doing it in the first place?

Until next time 🙂





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