How Scientists Explain the Link Between Workaholism and ADHD

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Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

While the label “workaholic” can feel like a humblebrag — presumably created by the same social-media ninjas that beckon you to Follow Your Passion and Do What You Love — some researchers argue that workaholism is very much an addiction. And according to a new study, it correlates strongly with a whole range of other psychiatric disorders, including ADHD.

Sampling 16,426 Norwegian workers who responded to ads in online newspapers, a team lead by University of Bergen researcher Cecilie Schou Andreassen found that workaholics — or 7.8 percent of the sample — were much more likely to have ADHD (32.7 percent compared to 12.7 percent); obsessive-compulsive disorder (25.6 percent compared to 8.7 percent); anxiety (33.8 percent compared to 11.9 percent); and depression (8.9 percent compared to 2.6 percent) than non-workaholics. The demographic most likely to fall under the workaholic label was young, female, single, self-employed, and managerial. People working in the private sector were more likely to be workaholics than those in the public sector.

The authors argue that the intriguing workaholism-ADHD link results from a couple factors. ADHD comes with impulsivity, and at work that turns into saying yes to everything and ending up with way too much on your plate. ADHD also speaks of hyperactivity, and the authors say work can be a way to “alleviate … restless thoughts and behavior.” ADHD may also lead to thinking that people think you’re incompetent, so you work extra-long hours to save face. And since ADHD means that it’s hard to regulate your attention, you might also work longer hours to make up for time lost to being sidetracked. The modern office exacerbates the distractedness: For the distraction-prone and open-office-trapped, it’s easier to stay focused when your lovely colleagues have finally gone home and signed off Slack.

Since it’s hard to draw a clear line between people who are really enthusiastic about their jobs and those who are genuinely addicted, Andreassen and her colleagues used several criteria to make it easier to see work as an addictive behavior, like using work to alleviate stress (mood modification); needing to work more and more to get the same mood-modifying effects (tolerance); feeling distressed if you’re unable to work (withdrawal); and trying to limit the hours spent working and failing to do so (relapse). The authors even created a new scale to reflect the addictive qualities of workaholism, called the Bergen Work Addiction Scale, so that it could be evaluated like other addictions.

A study of this nature has a few limitations. For one, it’s self-reported, and lots of research indicates that people are pretty bad at assessing their own abilities (we all think we’re great drivers, for example) and like to give answers that are socially desirable. (In addition, the study is all Norwegian respondents.) It’s also difficult to trace causality, and the authors say that workaholism might skew younger because of a generational gap in working preferences, or it might be that people mature out of workaholism as they get older (or their health wanes or familial responsibilities increase). It could also be that workaholics are more likely to be single because it’s hard to maintain a relationship with someone who’s working all the time.

Since the phones we’re all always looking at make us constantly available to job demands, the authors say that clearer boundaries between “work” and “life” need to be made at an organizational level. (It’s called “segmentation” in the literature, and it predicts having better romantic relationships and greater satisfaction in your life — see also: France’s new “right to disconnect.) Regardless of what is happening with your boss, you can change how you think and feel about your work through practices like cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, where you can learn to acknowledge the sensation of stress without being thrown into a frenzy by it. As with any addiction, it’s not about the behavior itself — but how you relate to it.

Science Explains Link Between Workaholism and ADHD