'At first, work addiction is beneficial to the individual, their family and their firm but ...'
Did you have the back to work blues this autumn or couldn't you wait to get back to your workplace? When does loving your job turn into a dangerous addiction? Jim Pollard recalls an early-morning journey.
The train is deserted. I can sit where I want and even spread out the umpteen papers and cuttings I intend to read on the way. My journey to the office has never been more pleasant. There is a very good reason for this - it is not yet 6am. Having spent most of the night thinking about work rather than sleeping, I am cutting my losses and going in.
That was several years ago and I've changed my working practices and attitudes a lot since. (Honest!) If you'd asked me at the time I'd have told you that I had no choice as I was overworked but I have to admit I also felt a little buzz of excitement as that empty train rolled on towards my office. Was I becoming a work addict? Are you at risk now?
Today it's even easier to be an addict. You don't even need to go anywhere. You just turn on your computer or take your blackberry out from under your pillow. And there appears to be a lot of it about.
The Japanese even have a word for 'death from overwork' — Karoshi.
In 2007, the government published it highest karoshi figures ever. What's the nature of the problem in the UK?
According to the landmark survey of 8,000 conducted by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development in 1999 more than a million workers in Britain considered themselves 'addicted' to their jobs and voluntarily work extra hours. A third of these self-diagnosed addicts were self-employed.
Recent surveys — and all the anecdotal evidence — suggest that nothing much has changed. Although hours worked fell a little from 1998-2006, the long hours culture is back. According to the TUC, 3.3 million people across the UK are working more than 48 hours a week this year. Take teachers, up to 55.2 hours/week compared to 48.8 hours/week in 1994. Research published by the BBC in August showed that only one in six workers takes a regular lunch break.
Addiction therapist Adrian Cole, above, who regularly treated work addicts at one of the famous Priory clinics says: 'Addiction is a pathological relationship with an object or event which means it can happen in any job.
'Work addiction is not related to occupation or to how high up the ladder you are.
'Although it affects more men than women, I've seen the full range from managing directors to technicians.'
Therapists use questionnaires to assess a patient's degree of addiction. Here are some examples. How do you do?
- I get impatient in slow moving queues
- I find myself doing two or three things at once like eating lunch and writing a memo
- I tend to put myself under pressure with self-imposed deadlines
- I get upset with myself for making the smallest mistake
- I prefer to do things myself rather than ask for help
Do you do these things never, sometimes, often or always? If you answer often or always a lot, you need to think seriously about your relationship with work.
It's important to understand that you may not realise your addiction is work. You may think you have some other issue. Adrian Cole says: 'None of the Priories advertise work addiction as a specific addiction. This comes as no surprise as very few individuals present with work addiction as a primary illness. It is usually masked by depression, drug or alcohol abuse or relationship difficulties.
'But work addiction is like any other drug. It can, if pursued to its conclusion, be fatal.' And, you don't need to be working all hours to be hooked. Cole goes on: 'You may be working nine to five but if all the time you're at home watching TV you're actually thinking about work then you need to think about what that means. We also see binge working like binge drinking.'
The comparison with alcohol addiction goes further. Treatment programmes often use some of the famous twelve steps used by Alcoholics Anonymous.
But there is an important difference between workaholism and alcoholism.
'Unlike alcohol addiction, we're not asking work addicts to give it up completely,' says Cole. 'That's not possible. The idea is to regain a healthy relationship with work. But while the act of not drinking may be difficult, the idea itself is simple. The ideas around work are more complex.'
One way of understanding the role of work in your life is to keep a diary. The survey of teachers' hours quoted above was based on diaries. As with all addictions just writing down what you're doing and seeing it in black and white can help you understand the scale and nature of the problem — the first step to dealing with it.
Cole believes all of us are potential addicts. 'Everyone likes to change the way they feel,' he says, 'and when we find something that works for us we obviously go back to it. For some, it gets out of control. The point is that initially an addiction works.'
Work addiction is particularly insidious in this way - praise, promotion, higher earnings. 'At first work addiction is beneficial to the individual, their family, their company and to society,' says Cole. 'But as returns diminish, an addict will strive even harder to chase that rainbow even when deep down inside they know it isn't working.'
Perfectionism, a need to be in control, low self-esteem and a preference for working on one's own rather than in teams are the classic character traits in work addicts. Cole does not to blame modern working culture - 'addicts use whatever is around,' he says, 'it's not new' - but when working practice exacerbates those character traits, it's a cause for concern.
Long hours, increased job insecurity, performance related pay - they all make work addiction easier to hide or to rationalise away.
In this respect, the current economic climate is a gift to work-addicts. After all, don't we all need to work harder to make more money and to convince our boss that when the redundancies come it shouldn't be us? 'It's a great excuse - first in, last out, everyone says what a fine fellow but it's really only fuel to the fire,' says Cole.
And another change in the job market — the increasing numbers of people working for themselves as consultants, contractors or freelances - may make things even worse in the future.
'I was writing a suicide note when my wife interrupted me'
Michael Jones (name changed) was running his own textile factory in the Midlands when he was diagnosed as a work addict.
Both my parents were in business working long hours so I never knew any different. Once I started work myself I gradually let every other interest in life go. I loved having a long list of things to do. For the last seven years of my working life I thought about nothing else. At best I was only getting two hours sleep a night, waking up in cold sweats. I had blackouts. I knew something wasn't right but thought that if I could work harder it would be OK.
One day I found myself driving in the fast lane of the motorway with no idea how I'd got there. When I got home I was a wreck. I collapsed in a heap. Yet I couldn't sleep. It was early morning and the magpies outside were driving me mad. I live on a farm and I got up to shoot myself. I was writing a suicide note when my wife interrupted me.
The GP put me on anti-depressants but that didn't help. When I eventually saw a psychiatrist he admitted me to hospital immediately. I was on suicide watch, being checked every half-hour. When the psychiatrist suggested work addiction I thought it was complete nonsense. But something happened that night, a blinding light, and when I woke up I knew I had to do the programme. It was a leap of faith but as I was powerless over my addiction I knew I had to make a leap of faith if I was to survive.
I followed the programme. Accepting my problem and that I could get well gave me hope and that built into a recovery. Now I do voluntary work talking to other addicts. I encourage people to recognise their similarities with other addicts. Because the work ethic is seen as a positive thing, the addiction creeps up on you. There are a lot of undiagnosed work addicts.
Page created on October 1st, 2008
Page updated on December 1st, 2009