Are you a workaholic?

Are you a workaholic? It was a question I was forced to confront last week after a freelancer writing a story for You magazine asked me for comment. She had found a blog I’d written about workaholics a couple of years ago and sent me a list of questions. As I worked through them on Tuesday night in between bouts of PowerPoint, I realized that I sound a lot like a workaholic. Though I have a lot of freedom thanks to my portfolio career, I work long hours when I have to, and I feel guilty if I’m not working. The last time I took leave, I spent it writing, heading home after two weeks in the bush with 34,000 words of one novel and 36,000 of another. (I hit writer’s block 20,000 words in and started another book rather than stalling. My record for one day was 11,000 words between game drives.)

The idea of the “workaholic” is something I grew up with. That’s what my father was by his own admission, and I remember asking my mother when I was about six years old why he was always home so late. Decades later, I’d have rows with my then husband because I was always at the office. Now that I don’t have a full time salaried job and don’t have to fill in timesheets, I still work long hours. 13-hour days if there are deadlines are routine, and nothing makes me happier than the pleasant exhaustion at the end of a long but productive day. I will cheerfully admit that for various reasons, I am completely and utterly focused on success in my portfolio career and for now, everything else takes a back seat. (I’m writing up this post on a Sunday afternoon when most people are relaxing or watching the cricket. I usually work on Sundays to avoid the Carte Blanche Sunday evening blues.)

Pyschologists liken addiction to work to other forms of unhealthy behaviour, like addiction to narcotics or alcohol.

But work isn’t just about earning a living; it’s also tied up with notions of meaning and purpose. It’s worth taking a step back to define what we mean by ‘work’. I like this overview by Canadian psychology professor Estelle Morin:

“The notion of “work” has several definitions, but they all share the idea of a purposeful activity. This notion generally refers to expending energy through a set of coordinated activities aimed at producing something useful. Work may be pleasant or unpleasant, and may or may not be associated with monetary exchanges.”

Just because you work long hours doesn’t mean you’re actually addicted to work, of course. Many people around the world work incredibly hard because they have no choice if they want to feed their families. Some industries, like law and advertising, make it pretty much mandatory to put your life on the backburner if you want to get ahead. When I first started in advertising, my boss often kept me at the office until midnight while she worked on presentations. I’d surf the net and chat on the Mail & Guardian forum while I waited for her to finish up with her diagrams, which she’d give to me to turn into PowerPoint slides. I still remember her rule: nothing smaller than 18 point. She once told me she’d have a nervous breakdown, if only she could find the time. Was she a workaholic? Almost certainly.

For something as embedded in modern society as the notion of the workaholic, it’s taken a long time to define and diagnose it. Only last year was a work addiction test introduced by pyschologists from the University of Bergen in Norway, who devised one in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University.In April 2012, the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS) was introduced in an article published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology.

Are you addicted to work? Take the BWAS test and find out. Read the following statements and give yourself a score between 1 and 5 for each, where: 1 = Never; 2 = Rarely; 3 = Sometimes; 4 = Often and 5 = Always.

1. You think of how you can free up more time to work.

2. You spend much more time working than initially intended.

3. You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression.

4. You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.

5. You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.

6. You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities and exercise because of your work.

7. You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

How did you do? Apparently, if you score 4 or 5 on at least four of the seven statements, you are probably addicted to work.

I rated myself 4 for statements 2, 3 and 5 and 3 for statements 6 and 7 – which means that I’m not a workaholic according to this definition, though I am probably sailing close to the wind. Statement 6 is an interesting one, though, because I’ve effectively turned what might be hobbies for some (writing, art) into work. I use time at the gym to de-stress and think about whatever I’m working on. By reframing almost everything I do as purposeful, I’ve coopted it for the concept of “work” in order to feel better about myself. Does that make me a workaholic? I don’t know.

Jungian psychologist James Hillman argues here that work is an instinct. Human beings seem compelled to work on the world around them rather than leave it untouched. Enjoying your work and deriving meaning and pleasure from it is by and large a good thing. As with all addiction, it becomes a problem if it impacts negatively on your own health and the lives of those around you. I’m a workaholic,

– Sarah Britten (first published on The Creativity Project blog, 17 March 2013).