June 07, 2024 11:47
Work till you drop? Interview with psychologist Bernadette Kun

As work is one of the most crucial parts of our lives, it is important to have a healthy relation to it. However, in our modern, busy society it is not always easy to find a good work-life balance, and many develop deeper mental health problems related to work, such as work addiction. In May, psychologist and researcher of ELTE, Bernadette Kun gave an insight into her research in this important field as the speaker of the Alumni Hungary Webinar. Read our interview with her! 

Why did you choose work addiction as your research?

I began working on the psychology of addictions during my doctoral studies, initially researching the relationship between substance use and emotional intelligence. Under the mentorship of professor Zsolt Demetrovics, my focus gradually shifted to the emerging field of behavioral addictions, which was relatively unexplored at the time. I explored various areas such as gambling addiction, shopping addiction, and exercise addiction, but I was particularly drawn to work addiction. This area interested me the most because it was the least researched, had numerous unexplored issues, and was the subject of significant professional debate. Key questions included whether work addiction is a legitimate problem, what it entails, and what its main drivers are. My research curiosity led me in this direction, and I have no regrets.

In today’s work-driven world, generally it is appreciated to work a lot. Where is the line between being hardworking and a workaholic?

It is crucial to distinguish between individuals who work a lot but are not workaholics and those who are. One might say that all workaholics work a lot, but not everyone who works a lot is a workaholic. To determine which group someone belongs to, we need to understand the internal drivers behind their work habits. Why do people work so much? For workaholics, the motivation stems from internal compulsions often linked to personality traits such as low self-esteem, high perfectionism, and a desire to meet others’ expectations. A workaholic does not work extensively because they enjoy it, but rather because they seek the social reinforcement that work provides, and to avoid unpleasant feelings of anxiety, guilt, and uselessness that would overwhelm them if they worked less. Additionally, workaholics experience addictive symptoms like loss of control (working more than planned) and withdrawal symptoms (nervousness, irritability, tension, boredom) when not working. Work addiction is also often associated with adverse consequences, such as conflicts in social relationships and physical and mental health problems, including sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, depressive symptoms, and burnout.

Can work addiction also manifest during university years regarding studying?

Yes, there is already research suggesting that study addiction (or ‘studyholism’) can be a precursor to work addiction. The symptoms are very similar to those of work addiction: studying becomes the most important activity, leading to the neglect of other aspects of life. This includes things that were previously important, such as friends, family, exercise, leisure activities, and other obligations. When unable to study, individuals may experience anxiety or other negative emotions. Their physical and mental health can also be affected by compulsive learning, which is often accompanied by unhealthy lifestyles, including irregular diets, lack of sleep, and insufficient exercise.

What are the root causes of work addiction? Are there certain personality traits that make one more at risk?

Identifying the causes is the most challenging task, as it requires longitudinal studies from childhood to adulthood. We currently lack such data, but we can identify certain risk factors. The country or culture in which one is born also plays a significant role. For example, some countries have a much higher risk of work addiction (e.g., South Korea, where nearly 40% of workers are affected) compared to others (e.g., European countries, around 7-10%). Differences in work culture may have social and ideological roots, influencing how children are taught to relate to work. Family influences, which may be independent of culture, are also significant. For instance, the role model set by parents, the importance they place on work, and the high expectations they have for their children play crucial roles. Excessive parental expectations may teach children that positive feedback (compliments, love) is only given if they perform their best. This shapes their personality, along with hereditary factors. Many personality traits correlate with work addiction, but the three most important factors are low self-esteem, high perfectionism, and high negative affectivity. Negative affectivity means a stable tendency to experience negative emotions more frequently, such as fear, anxiety, sadness, or emotional instability. These traits, along with other co-occurring factors (e.g., anxiety, compulsivity, rumination), suggest that workaholics experience significant internal instability. Finally, the type of workplace also matters, as certain organizational characteristics can increase the risk of workaholism. For example, a company with unrealistically high expectations but low levels of reward, a workaholic manager who expects constant work from colleagues, a destructively competitive environment where everyone is vying for limited rewards, even unfairly, or a lack of peer support within the company can all contribute to the emergence of workaholism.

Do workplaces realize work addiction as a problem at all? Are there good examples where companies have made steps to avoid work overload?

I see this problem becoming more prominent in the corporate world. The myth that workaholism is beneficial, and that it is good for the company if employees live exclusively for their work, is being debunked. Initially, this behavior may seem attractive and advantageous to managers because such employees are always available, take on every task, devote all their time to work, and display boundless loyalty to the company. However, in the long run, this comes at a significant cost, not only to the workaholic but also to the organization. Overworking and self-exploitation inevitably affect performance and work relationships. Sooner or later, sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, burnout, and impatience will set in, all detracting from performance. Increased error rates, time slips, or stress-related illnesses can also occur. A tired, sleep-deprived, overworked employee is more likely to be impatient and rude to others. Additionally, workaholics often exhibit control freak tendencies, making it difficult to collaborate effectively as they want to control everything. Companies are gradually realizing that it is much better to work with employees who are physically and mentally well, who have a private life, and who can relax. Consequently, more companies are focusing on the mental well-being of their employees, which is a very positive trend that all workplaces should follow. This can include screenings, psychoeducation, and various intervention programs addressing different aspects of mental health.

How workaholism can be treated?

There is very little reliable data available on therapy for work addiction. This is a difficult issue because workaholics are less likely to seek treatment compared to others. Contributing factors include low recognition of the problem and denial or rationalization of their behavior (e.g., 'workaholism is good for me, the company, the family'). Often, work addiction is discovered only after it has led to other negative consequences, such as physical symptoms related to stress, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, stomach issues, or musculoskeletal symptoms. It is also common for individuals to be diagnosed with burnout or depression, which may have underlying work addiction. Additionally, frequent relationship or family conflicts can lead to the discovery of work addiction during couple or family therapy. Limited research suggests that meditation-based therapies may be effective for treating work addiction. This includes mindfulness therapy, although more research is needed in this area. Similar to other addictions, there are anonymous 12-step self-help groups for workaholism, such as Workaholics Anonymous. These groups provide support through shared experiences, knowledge, and suggestions. While participation in such groups can be very helpful, it is also beneficial to seek individual support from a mental health professional. A psychologist can help explore the underlying causes of workaholism and develop healthier work habits.

To watch the webinar of Bernadette Kun, and join our upcoming webinars by prominent Hungarian professionals and scientists, join the Alumni Network Hungary here! 

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