The signs were all there. Sarah* a journalist, missed putting her 18-month-old son to bed again because she’d opted to work late. She was seven months pregnant with her second child, but refused to slow down or even leave her desk for lunch. “You’ll give birth there if you don’t start going home earlier,” her colleagues joked, but it was really no laughing matter.
She only just arrived home from the office when she went into labour a month before her due date. Sarah was still filing stories and answering emails while she was having contractions, and was back online just hours after giving birth.
Three weeks after her daughter was born, she turned up at the office, placed the newborn in a pram by her desk and only left her computer to breastfeed her baby in a private room when she woke.
The amount of time she dedicated to her career was spiralling out of control, leaving her exhausted and causing friction in her marriage. She had no hobbies, and family activities and exercise took a backseat to her work.
But still, Sarah refused to slow down. When a colleague pointed this out to her, suggesting she take some time off to recuperate from the birth and spend time with her family, the 32-year-old gave her a look that said, ‘Are you crazy?’
“In fact I am wondering if I can reduce my five-hour sleep and come to work earlier,’’ she was overheard telling another colleague in the pantry while waiting for the coffee to boil.
Anan Bakir* is no different.
“I can look back today and see there was a problem long before it was labelled ‘workaholism’,” she says. “In the first job I ever did, I remember being surprised when I was told to go home at the end of the day. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to stay until every task I needed to do was completed.”
Anan, 48, a self-employed building contractor says, “I couldn’t tell you how many hours a week I worked. Usually I was working well into the evening, and if people asked me to stay on and do other jobs I would always agree.”
With no family or responsibilities to go home for, Anan became obsessed with keeping busy. “I would sign up to courses, join groups and volunteer. I went from one thing to another so I never had to be alone. I wanted to do everything there was to do in the world.
“Whatever I did, I would feel terrible because I would be fretting about all the others things I felt I needed to do. I wasn’t enjoying any of it because I was never in the present moment. I was aware things were not right and was craving activity.”
Anan was addicted to being busy – a condition she now recognises is a type of workaholism.
“I’d heard the word,” she says. “But I didn’t understand the impact of the condition.”
While it is good to be interested in the work you do, it’s bad to be addicted to it, say psychologists adding that workaholism has come to be an ‘acceptable addiction’.
To many it is still not even viewed as a problem; rather something to be admired and aspired too. Many people wear the workaholic badge with pride. However, the line between hard work and compulsive behaviour can easily blur, and increasingly workaholism is being treated as a condition on par with drug addiction and alcoholism.
The condition manifests itself in business centres including Mumbai, Bengaluru, Manila, London, New York and Dubai where career-focussed people are immersed in cultures that encourage long hours.
Earlier this year, the Regus Index Survey revealed that the work/life balance of people in the UAE is below the international average – a key indicator of the conditions that can give rise to workaholism. More than 50 per cent of those surveyed in the UAE stated they spent more time at work than they did at home.
When the survey was published Samineh Shaheem, assistant professor of psychology at the Human Relations Institute Dubai, told Gulf News, “If no other activity satisfies you as much as work, you are never fully disconnected from work. You are always drawn to work issues even when at home and you cannot stop thinking about work.”
For Anan, salvation came in the form of a work-related injury, which forced her to stop. She injured her foot and was unable to walk for several months. The enforced hiatus gave her the opportunity to take stock of her life.
“I knew the injury was a result of my lifestyle and of the rushing around and stress I was putting myself under.”
She researched workaholism online and discovered an organisation called Workaholics Anonymous (WA), which runs programmes similar to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, for work addicts.
Workaholics Anonymous has 2,500 members and runs online and face-to-face meetings in countries such as the USA, the UK, Ukraine, Thailand, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden. Anan began attending meetings and now follows WA’s 12-step programme for recovery.
“My life is immeasurably better,” she says. “I feel so much more at peace. I also believe it helps me work better. I am more focussed on the tasks I am doing. I am more inclined to look after my health and I am less ego-driven.”
She admits that there is still a stigma surrounding the condition. “It’s difficult telling an employer I am a member of WA because they may think I should be working harder.”
Understanding is key to countering the growing problem of work addiction. Overwork is viewed by society as a worthwhile attribute, and hard workers are inevitably praised and rewarded. Subsequently, denial is common and often the last people to realise there is a problem are workaholics themselves.
Author of Chained to the Desk, Bryan Robinson, calls the acceptance and reward of workaholism, “the glorification of an illness”.
Thankfully the problem is coming under increasing scrutiny and people are becoming aware of it thanks to several recent studies. In April, Norwegian and British researchers developed The Bergen Work Addiction Scale, a standardised criteria aimed at helping people identify if they have an addiction.
And in March, Psychology Today cited recent research that outlines four basic types of work addict; the manic perfectionist, the stress junkie, the muddled multitasker, and the worker who never seems able to let a project go.
Identifying the problem is the first step to tackling it. According to Dr Amy Bailey, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist, “workaholics will often deny there is a problem, despite feedback from loved ones and deteriorating relationships. ”.
She identifies a number of destructive ways in which workaholism manifests itself including neglect of family and friends, the urge to talk about work constantly, reluctance to take sick days and the desire to be busy all the time.
‘The last addiction to be dealt with’
While Workaholics Anonymous offers one form of treatment, psychotherapy offers another. Adrianna Irvine is a London-based psychotherapist who specialises in treating people with addictions, including workaholism.
She explains, “It’s usually one of the last addictions to be dealt with. The addict supports it because it helps him or her to feel like a viable, upstanding worker. Treatment usually begins with self diagnosis, as no one else can stop the workaholic.
“One knows because often there is little else going on in life except work, which is the function of the condition; to drive away all the alternatives while apparently feeding the individual’s esteem, respect and worth.
“Workaholics usually have no hobbies, little social life, fewer and fewer friends and a furious family as many engagements get broken.
“Ultimately, it rebounds by taking away the feelings of esteem, worth and respect that were initially being achieved. Just like drugs, alcohol, anorexia, bulimia, and gambling, immersion in work achieves varying degrees of relief until it no longer achieves this, no matter how frantic the behaviour is. A hard worker can take time off and feel good regardless of the outcome, manage their feelings if the project goes wrong, or gets cancelled whereas the workaholic feels as if their life depends on the success of it.”
There are often deep-seated reasons why someone becomes a workaholic. As UK psychologist Jacqueline Hurst explains, “Often people will use work if they are lonely, or if they cannot face something else in their life. They will build up their work life to mask other problems.
“I recently started seeing a client and initially, from the way she spoke, I assumed she ran a large bank. It turned out she was an administrator. The issue was that she was very lonely and she masked this with work.”
Family relationships are one casualty of workaholism. Health is another. The immense stresses workaholics put themselves under often results in conditions such as sleep deprivation, hypertension, anxiety and depression.
A recent global study found that over-workers are between 40 and 80 per cent more likely to suffer heart disease, while research in New Zealand found that people who work at least 50 hours a week are up to three times more likely to have alcohol problems.
Figures also show that middle-aged people working more than 55 hours a week tend to be more slow-witted and are at higher risk of dementia. In Spain, researchers predict that the number of workaholics will rise from the current 4.6 per cent to 11.8 per cent in 2015.
These Spanish figures are worrying as they hint at what is possibly the main reason for the growing number of people who are addicted to work; the global economic turndown.
In Spain, a country teetering on the edge of financial cataclysm where one in four people are unemployed, workers are driven to longer hours by the fear of losing their jobs.
In the financial district of London, addiction counsellor Richard Kingdom is on the front line. He has first-hand experience of the damage career insecurity can cause as he runs City Beacon, an addiction therapy service in London. He says an atmosphere of fear pervades the business hub and predicts that mental illness as a result of stress and anxiety could reach epidemic levels.
“As a conservative estimate, I would say there are around 60,000 people in the Square Mile suffering from, or at risk of mental illness, but that number could easily be 100,000,” he says.
“Workaholics use work as just like they would use any banned substance. They try to change the way they feel and shut down emotionally. They use it to numb themselves. They get lost in it and it becomes their world.
“I have seen families and marriages devastated just as much through work as through drugs and drink because the person is not emotionally there.
“They are caught in a trap and can’t get out, then they burn out. They don’t look at the health implications.”
While employees should rightly be encouraged to work hard and be rewarded accordingly, employers should be wary of people who push themselves too far, to the detriment of their health and the company in the long term.