• Author:Ben Jones
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Are you a work addict?

It’s only one drink. I can quit whenever I want. I’m not hurting anyone. I enjoy it. I don’t have a problem. 

The list of addict’s excuses or explanations is endless. Whether it’s denial or deceit, addicts are fantastic at telling stories; hiding their impulses; convincing those closest to them that this is a blip and won’t happen again. That they are fine; there is nothing to see here.  

We are all fairly familiar with the complex and distressing issues of alcoholism, drug and gambling addictions. We all know of other addictions which take over people’s lives and those of their family and friends. Addictions that change the person they love; make them unrecognisable; turn them into a shadow of themselves. It’s in the news every day; fills the plot lines of our favourite soap operas or TV dramas; is often very close to home. We all know someone or someone who knows someone whose life has been ruined by addiction. 

I have been fascinated for years about another corrosive and extremely common addiction. One that is manifesting itself in every office and workplace in the country. One that is destroying lives and relationships. One that is eating into the work-life balance of its victims and eroding people’s health and self worth on a daily basis. This work place addiction is too often caricatured as someone being a maverick “workaholic” as if that was a funny and benign habit that we can all chuckle at. In the same ugly way that people mock OCD and use the label “OCD” as an entirely inappropriate shorthand for people who are tidy or particular about their desks or their working styles rather than for those who lives are taken over by impulses and compulsions that are far from funny. 

We don’t talk a lot about work addiction but we should. We should because it is everywhere. In my office. Your office. Your team. Your organisation. Your circle of friends and family. Your neighbours. Your fellow parents at the school gate. Your nearest and dearest. It may be sitting with you in the chair reading this.

Let’s start by agreeing what work addiction isn’t. 

It isn’t working hard; caring about your job or your organisation; it isn’t about doing extra hours or sometimes working at evenings or weekends when the work demands; it isn’t going the extra mile even when you haven’t been asked to; it isn’t being a perfectionist at work or in life; it isn’t total commitment to do your best every day, with every task. It isn’t working very hard. 

It is something much more serious and, by its nature as an addiction, involuntary. It takes over your judgements, actions and decisions as all addictions do. It dominates you; it owns you. It becomes you. 

Does any of this sound familiar………..you regularly work at home in the evenings, even when there isn’t an unexpected workload spike, new deadline, crisis or big big problem? You work at home most evenings – i.e. working at home more nights than you don’t work at home during the week – in other words, it is your normal working day? You are questioned by your partner or a loved one as to why you are working and you get agitated/push back/explain that this cannot wait/say this is really important/feel they don’t understand how much work you have on? You check your emails before you go to bed and/or first thing when you wake up – it is one the last and first thing you do each day? 

You regularly read and/or send emails after 6pm, despite there being no crisis or urgent issue? You say something like “I’m just going to work for an hour” and then work for twice or three times that long? You work at weekends to “get on top of stuff” or “to clear my inbox”? You are watching TV but are really thinking about your inbox, that email your boss sent you earlier, or the email you just read at 9:15 during the adverts? You get cranky occasionally when your partner or a colleague is talking to you because you want to use that time to send that crucial email? You get some unexpected free time and you are pleased because it gives you more time to do some work/to clear that to-do list – you think about the chance to do work first, not the chance to spend time with your nearest and dearest or the chance to do something for you. Be honest now. 

You find yourself talking about work at home – not in a “how was your day, dear?” way but in a broken record way, to the point your partner or nearest and dearest feel like they work in your office? You feel like no-one works as hard as you in your team or understands how much you have on? You do that last email or slide deck yourself, even though it means staying late or working at home because it’s quicker than asking someone else to do it? You stay late at work when you don’t have to and rarely get home at the time you say you will, sometimes making the excuse that “something came up” when really it was just that you wanted to do the work before you left? You are sat on the train, in the shower or anywhere that is not work and you find yourself thinking about work? You dream about work, a lot?

Take a minute to reflect on this description. Is this you? Is this someone you know? Does even some of this description ring a bell?

If you are looking for some academic research to reinforce this description, look no further than the University of Bergen in Norway. Researchers there have developed a new way of measuring work addiction: The Bergen Work Addiction Scale. Its key points are summarised below:

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale uses seven basic criteria to identify work addiction, where all items are scored on the following scale: (1) Never, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Always:

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • You spend much more time working than initially intended.
  • You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression.
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
  • You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • You deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

The study showed that scoring of «often» or «always» on at least four of the seven items may suggest that you have a work addiction issue.

https://www.uib.no/en/news/36450/driven-work

As we all know, the first step to tackling an addiction is to admit you have a problem. Be honest with yourself and those who love you; think long and hard about how you work; think about your normal working patterns; don’t fall into the classic excuses or explanations but be totally honest. If you recognise yourself in the description above, call it for what it is. Give it its real title. You are an addict.

Say that out loud and then take a deep breath. You have taken that important and difficult first step. You have admitted you have a problem. Now you can start to fix it.

In the next two posts in my five principles for achieving and maintaining the right work-life balance for you, I will reflect on some practical things you can do to help. It is all fixable; if you really want to fix it but only if you accept that, like the alcoholic with their next drink, its not just one more; its the sent email that says I cannot stop. 

The image is a screenshot of Harvard Business Review magazine which focused on work life balance. In keeping with HBR materials this is a fantastic resource and a source of superb insight and advice. You can find out more by following this link: https://hbr.org/topic/work-life-balance

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