Under the Hood

Workaholics More Likely To Suffer From Psychiatric Disorders Like OCD, But Only Certain Types

workaholic
People who tended to overwork as a way of managing feelings of guilt or anxiety (workaholics) were more likely to have a psychiatric disorder. Pixabay, public domain

What makes a workaholic? According to a few of the seven diagnostic criteria developed by researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway, workaholics tend to fixate on freeing up more time to work, spend more time working than they initially meant to, and use work as a way to assuage feelings of guilt, anxiety, or helplessness.

But new research, conducted by the same team at the University of Bergen, finds that a workaholic may also be more likely to show signs of psychiatric disorders like OCD, ADHD, anxiety, and depression compared to non-workaholics. The authors reviewed 16,426 working adults and tested them on both psychiatric and workaholic symptoms, then examined the link between them. It makes sense that workaholics would be more anxious and stressed out, or have some level of mental health issues. Past research has shown that workaholics tend to burn out more quickly and even be less productive than more laid-back workers.

In order to first gauge whether the participants scored as workaholics, the researchers had them rate the following seven criteria from one to five (one if the situation never occurs, and five if it always does). The criteria cover several bases, including being preoccupied with work, using work to reduce emotional stress or modify mood, slowly building tolerance to work and putting in more hours to get the same level of mood modification, and sacrificing other priorities or obligations in order to work more. The criteria approach workaholism as an addiction.

  • 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 or 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 deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.
  • You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Afterwards, the researchers rated levels of psychiatric disorders among both the participants who scored as workaholics, and those who didn’t. They found that 32.7 percent of workaholics met criteria for ADHD compared to only 12.7 percent among non-workaholics. More than 25 percent, meanwhile, met OCD criteria compared to only 8.7 percent among non-workaholics. And a whopping 33.8 percent met anxiety criteria compared to 11.9 percent.

“Workaholics scored higher on all the psychiatric symptoms than non-workaholics,” said Cecilie Schou Andreassen, Clinical Psychologist Specialist at the University of Bergen and an author of the study, in a press release. “Thus, taking work to the extreme may be a sign of deeper psychological or emotional issues.” However, the researchers are hesitant to conclude whether workaholism causes psychiatric disorders, or vice versa. “Whether this reflects overlapping genetic vulnerabilities, disorders leading to workaholism or, conversely, workaholism causing such disorders, remain uncertain,” Andreassen added.

Different Types Of OCD

The researchers found a link between workaholism and psychiatric disorders, but they didn’t fully examine how they were related. More research would need to be done in order to see how OCD — and what specific types of OCD — may lead to an increased risk of workaholism, or vice versa.

In the study, the researchers suggest that the tendency of some OCD sufferers to compulsively organize or control things, as well as a higher risk of addiction, could lead to workaholic addiction.

“It has been suggested that addictive behaviors might represent a coping and/or escape mechanism of OCD symptoms, or as an OCD-behavior that eventually becomes an addiction in itself,” the authors write. “Previous workaholic typologies have incorporated the ‘compulsive-dependent’ and ‘perfectionistic’ types, and some empirical studies have demonstrated that obsessive-compulsive traits are present among workaholics. The OCD tendency of having the need to arrange things in a certain way (i.e., a strong need for control) and obsessing over details to the point of paralysis may predispose workers with such traits to develop workaholic working patterns.”

But OCD is more complicated, and widespread, than the simple stereotypes of someone organizing things by color or washing their hands obsessively. There are generally four different main categories of OCD: checking, physical/mental contamination, hoarding, and rumination or intrusive thoughts. People with OCD who feel the urge to check things (like the stove, locks, water taps, windows, etc.) way too many times often take big chunks of time out of their day. The same goes for those who experience intrusive thoughts about how a behavior or action (like stepping on a crack) could lead to harming a loved one. In the obsessive attempt to avoid bad things from happening, a person suffering from intrusive thoughts will go out of their way to avoid things that will trigger the thoughts — from typing certain numbers to retracing their steps to not walking on a crack.

It’s possible that like workaholics with ADHD, those with OCD may spend more time working compared to normal employees in order to compensate for the time lost from their psychiatric disorders. But without further research, it’s difficult to say whether the perfectionistic tendencies gleaned from a "checking" OCD fit well into a workaholic agenda, while other types of OCD do not.

Source: Andreassen C, Griffiths M, Sinha R, Hetland J, Pallesen S. The Relationships between Workaholism and Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders: A Large-Scale Cross-Sectional Study. PLOS One , 2016.

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