The Hidden Link Between Workaholism and Mental Health

Long hours on the job can temporarily ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. But you’re better off leaving the office and facing your feelings head-on.

Illustration of a person covered in post-it notes, which a small dog on their shoulder is trying to pull away
Jan Buchczik
A smiley face

How to Build a Lifeis a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.

Winston Churchill was many things: statesman, soldier, writer. He was one of the first world leaders to sound the alarm about the Nazi menace in the 1930s, and then captivated the global imagination as a leader against the Axis powers in World War II. While prime minister of the United Kingdom during the war, he kept a crushing schedule, often spending 18 hours a day at work. On top of this, he wrote book after book in office. By the end of his life, he had finished 43, filling 72 volumes.

Churchill also suffered from crippling depression, which he called his “black dog,” and which visited him again and again. It seems almost unthinkable that he could be so productive in states so grim that he once told his doctor, “I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything.”

Some say Churchill’s depression was bipolar, and windows of mania allowed him to work as much as he did. But a few of his biographers explain it differently: Churchill’s workaholism wasn’t in spite of his suffering, but because of it. He distracted himself with work. Lest you think this far-fetched, researchers today find that workaholism is a common addiction in response to distress. And like so many addictions, it worsens the situation it’s meant to alleviate.

In the United States, tens of millions—as many as 10 percent of us—suffer from a substance addiction at some point in our lives. We are all too familiar with how addictions can creep up on us. In many cases, use of a controlled substance to ease the pain of a malady turns into an abuse disorder. Sometimes that use begins with treatment by a professional, but when the treatment stops, the drug use doesn’t. This is a common path to opiate addiction.

But many people treat themselves right from the start. In 2018, researchers analyzed a decade’s worth of data and wrote in the journal Depression and Anxiety that, based on their literature review, 24 percent of people with an anxiety disorder and nearly 22 percent of people with a mood disorder (such as major depression or bipolar disorder) self-medicate using alcohol or drugs. Self-medicators were far more likely to develop substance dependence. For example, epidemiological data revealed that people who self-medicated for anxiety using alcohol were more than six times as likely to develop persistent alcohol dependence as those who didn’t self-medicate.

There is compelling evidence that some people treat their emotional problems with work as well. This can lead to its own kind of addiction. Many studies have shown a strong association between workaholism and the symptoms of psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and it has been common to assume that compulsive work leads to these maladies. But some psychologists have recently argued reverse causation—that people may treat their depression and anxiety with workaholic behavior. As the authors of one widely reported 2016 study in the scientific journal PLOS One wrote, “Workaholism (in some instances) develops as an attempt to reduce uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and depression.”

The 2016 study received significant attention for its quality, and will no doubt stimulate more tests of this hypothesis in the coming years. If the findings hold, which I suspect they will, the causal relationship could partially explain why so many people increased their work hours during the pandemic. For many months during the initial shutdowns, people faced boredom, loneliness, and anxiety; by late May 2020, CDC data showed that nearly a quarter of American adults had reported symptoms of depression. (In 2019, that figure was 6.5 percent.) Perhaps a portion of workers self-treated by doubling down on their jobs in order to feel busy and productive.

People who struggle with workaholism can easily deny that it’s a problem, and thus miss the underlying issues they are self-treating. How can work be bad? As the Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke, the author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, told me in a recent interview for The Atlantic’s How to Build a Happy Life podcast, “Even previously healthy and adaptive behaviors—behaviors that I think we broadly as a culture would think of as healthy, advantageous behaviors—now have become drugified such that they are made more potent, more accessible, more novel, more ubiquitous.” If you are sneaking into the bathroom at home to check your work email on your iPhone, she’s talking about you.

What’s more, when it comes to work, people reward you for addictive behavior. No one says, “Wow, an entire bottle of gin in one night? You are an outstanding drinker.” But work 16 hours a day, and you’ll probably get a promotion.

Despite the extolled virtues of maximum work, the costs will almost certainly outrun the benefits, as they usually do in self-medicating addictions. The burnout, depression, job stress, and work-life conflict will get worse, not better. And as Lembke also told me, workaholism can lead to secondary addictions, such as to drugs, alcohol, or pornography, which people use to self-medicate for the problems caused by the primary addiction, often with catastrophic personal consequences.

To find solutions to work addiction, I interviewed my Harvard colleague Ashley Whillans, the author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, for another episode of How to Build a Happy Life. She told me that individual solutions to workaholism include increasing your awareness of how you use your time and shifting your mindset away from valuing work over leisure. She recommended three practices.

1. Do a time audit.

For a few days, keep a careful log of your major activities—work, leisure, running errands—as well as how long you spent on each one and how you felt. Note the activities that bring you the most positive mood and meaning. This will give you two pieces of information: how much you are working (to make denial impossible), and what you like to do when you aren’t working (to make recovery more attractive).

2. Schedule your downtime.

Workaholics tend to marginalize nonwork activities as “nice to have,” and thus crowd them out with work. This is how the 14th hour of work, which is rarely productive, displaces an hour you might have spent with your children. Block off time in your day for nonwork activities, just as you do for meetings.

3. Program your leisure.

Don’t leave those downtime slots too loose. Unstructured time is an invitation to turn back to work, or to passive activities that aren’t great for well-being, such as scrolling social media or watching television. You probably have a to-do list that is organized in priority order. Do the same with your leisure, planning active pastimes you value. If you enjoy calling your friend, don’t leave it for when you happen to have time—schedule it and stick to the plan.

This has been a game changer for me. I treat my walks, prayer time, and gym sessions as if they were meetings with the president. And when I have nothing planned, my plan is literally to do nothing, without succumbing to distractions.

Listen as Arthur Brooks and business professor Ashley Whillans explore the gap between how we want to use our time and how we actually do.

Dealing with a work addiction can make a real difference in our lives. It opens up time for family and friends. It allows nonwork pastimes that are not useful, just fun. It enables us to take better care of ourselves, for example, by exercising. All of these things have been shown to raise happiness or lower unhappiness.

But addressing workaholism still leaves the underlying issue that working so hard was meant to treat. Perhaps you too are visited by Churchill’s black dog. Or maybe your dog is a different color: a troubled marriage; a chronic sense of inadequacy; maybe even ADHD or obsessive-compulsive disorder, which have been linked to overwork. Ceasing to use work to distract yourself from that is an opportunity to face your troubles, perhaps with help, and thus solve the problem that got you hooked on excessive work in the first place.

Facing the dog might seem scarier than simply turning to the old dogcatchers: your boss, your colleagues, your career. But in the end, you might just find a way to get rid of that mutt for good.

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