Fuelling Work Addiction – the Connection between Workaholism and Substance Abuse

In a culture that prizes educational attainment, career progression and business achievements, the drive to succeed leads to work addiction for some. For most people, pursuing ambitions and goals is satisfying and life-enhancing – but when the motivation to work hard becomes a compulsion to work at all costs, then health and relationships suffer.

Workaholism may not sound as serious as substance abuse – but left untreated, it can result in the same feelings of desperation, isolation and poor self-esteem. It’s also common for workaholics to experience a lot of stress, which can trigger clinical depression or anxiety disorder.

Some studies conclude that work addicts turn to alcohol and drugs in greater numbers than people who work standard hours. A 2012 New Zealand study examined the associations between working hours and alcohol-related problems in early adulthood. They found that longer work hours were associated with more frequent alcohol use, higher rates of alcohol abuse and a greater number of alcohol dependence symptoms. Men and women working 50 hours or more had up to 3.3 times the rate of alcohol problems, as those who were not working.

In this blog, we’ll look at the connection between work addiction and substance abuse. What aspects of workaholism put people at risk of developing alcohol or drug dependence? And how can employers support their staff, when they show signs of work addiction and substance abuse?

5 Signs of Workaholism that Can Lead to Substance Abuse

1. Working long hours

It’s the most obvious sign of workaholism – consistently working more hours than you intended and/or you’re being paid to work. Workaholics often feel that the work they do and the time they have for work is not enough. They often doubt the quality of their work and fear they will lose their employment or business, if they don’t work relentlessly. Students might find themselves working through the night, to hit coursework deadlines or revise before exams.

As stress and exhaustion set in, work addicts often turn to alcohol and drugs to numb discomfort, relieve pressure, stave off tiredness, manage insomnia or concentrate on their work. However, substance abuse will only make matters worse over time.

2. Skipping breaks, working on days off, not taking holidays

Are you the type of person who always eats lunch at your desk, whilst reading emails? Do you answer business phone calls on your days off? Do you feel extreme pressure when you go on holiday – not only to get everything done before you go away, but to manage your workload when you get back?

Typically, work addicts find it very difficult to switch off from work. Lack of rest and relaxation is unsustainable and can tip people into addiction.

3. Difficulty delegating at work

Work addiction can develop from a compulsive need to control work outputs. This is why work addicts often find it very hard to delegate work. They do not trust others to get work done or they find it difficult to ask for help.

By constantly keeping the pressure high, often with a long list of tasks to complete, many work addicts run on adrenalin, caffeine or nicotine. There comes a point where this stops working and other addictions can develop.

4. Poor communication about work pressure

Addicts in active addiction find it hard or impossible to express how they really feel. This is because all addictive processes and substances numb or significantly alter emotions. Addicts quickly lose touch with how they are really feeling.

Workaholics also derive a particular sense of pride or validation from their work. It can feel extremely threatening to a work addict, to admit the pressure they are under. They tend to keep problems at work to themselves, whenever possible.

5. Underestimating how long work takes

Work addicts often underestimate the time needed to complete a task, project or assignment. They don’t take into account the need for time to develop ideas, research or revise their work. They assume they will be able to work uninterrupted. They rarely account fully for breaks, holidays or sickness periods.

If you find yourself stuck in this cycle, you probably feel like you always need to rush to get things done. That places you under a lot of stress over time. You might find yourself trying to take the pressure off by going for drinks after work or taking mind-altering drugs to unwind. Some work addicts also use drugs to try and complete work projects, particularly when they are close to a deadline and there’s still a lot of work to do.

Information for Employers about Workaholism and Substance Abuse

At first, work addicts may appear to be model employees. They are consistently present at their desk. They rarely, if ever, take a day off sick. They always volunteer for more work. Good employers know that ‘presenteeism’ can be as problematic as absenteeism, however. In the long run, it can lead to poor work performance, absence and ill health.

Having clear policies in place about holidays and overtime, as well as creating a supportive culture for people experiencing work stress, are helpful measures. There are many ways of communicating these things in an organisation – from internal communications (newsletters, posters, emails), to inductions for new staff, training events or staff conferences. In the long run, encouraging employees to take adequate breaks and talk about their problems are always good investments.

Alcohol and drug policies are useful too – but employers should bear in mind that rules on alcohol and drug use will not deter most addicts as their disease  progresses. By definition, alcohol and drug dependence is a reliance on a substance beyond the user’s control. The most supportive thing employers can do is encourage openness about alcohol and drug problems.

Some large employers also fund addiction treatment or have an employee benefits package that includes private healthcare. Sometimes insurance policies cover treatment for conditions including depression and anxiety, including where there’s a dual diagnosis of addiction.

The UKAT Admissions team are availableevery dayy, to discuss the options for residential and outpatient addiction treatment. If you’re a workaholic with a substance use disorder, please call us in confidence. Equally, employers or HR managers can get in touch, to find out about addiction treatment for an employee.