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Why Workaholism May Be a Red Flag for SUD

Tired stressed male worker taking off glasses, person massaging nose bridge suffering from headache and trying to relieve pain. Despaired man frustrated after reading company collapse or failure news

Few things are as American as the idea that work is a virtue. Unfortunately, the line between virtue and pathological behavior can sometimes be blurred. Though “workaholism” (or ergomania, as it’s known by mental health experts) is not recognized as an illness in and of itself, it is linked with a variety of mental health problems, including substance use disorder (SUD).1,2

Here we’ll lay out some key points regarding the relationship between ergomania and SUD, as well as other mental health conditions that commonly co-occur with and contribute to it. Contact our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers to learn more about options in New England for treating SUD and co-occurring psychiatric issues.

How are “Workaholism” and Substance Misuse Related?

Overwork is a common coping mechanism for mental health conditions linked to SUD, notably anxiety, depression, and trauma. People with these and related conditions may turn to work as a reaction to emotional distress. This same emotional distress may also trigger substance misuse in many individuals.1,2,4

Why do “Workaholics” Turn to Substances?

There is little corroborating evidence that ergomania is a stand-alone condition that directly contributes to substance misuse.3 However, it is clear that people who have ergomania are also at risk from misusing substances, particularly those with depressant qualities like alcohol, sedatives, cannabis, and opioids. These individuals may also use stimulants to get out of a “depressed state” caused by exhaustion.3,4

Some specific reasons individuals who overwork turn to substance include the following:

  • Difficulty sleeping. This is often linked to the lingering effects of anxiety or trauma, either of which can be work-related, though this is not always the case. They may turn to depressant substances in an effort to wind down at the end of the day.3,4
  • Chronic pain or fatigue. People with jobs that involve physical labor or are prone to repetitive stress injuries may turn to alcohol or painkillers as a way to cope with the pain and remain productive.1,3,4
  • Compensation for exhaustion. A common example that many people may relate to is consuming large amounts of caffeine or nicotine after pulling an all-nighter. Others with more serious substance misuse issues may turn to stimulants like cocaine, methamphetamines, or LSD to keep themselves “on” physically or mentally.1,3,4

Signs of Ergomania

Ergomania is related to but not the same as “working hard”. The main difference is that hard workers are better able to compartmentalize work and personal life while “workaholics” tend to bring work home with them, either mentally or in a more real sense.1

Some signs of ergomania include but are not limited to the following:1,3,4

  • Work-related stress and anxiety that doesn’t dissipate at home
  • Using work as an escape, rather than as a means of fulfillment
  • Deriving little-to-no pleasure from work
  • Misusing substances to cope with the mental and health effects of work
  • Anxiety before beginning work, especially on Sundays or last days of vacation.
  • Lowered work quality, even with best efforts
  • Constant fatigue
  • Checking work emails during days off

Challenges Faced By Workaholics With SUD

People with ergomania who also have SUD may have some unique problems that are not present in many other people with SUD.

  • Family and peers may look the other way. People who misuse substances but remain productive may not be thought of as in need of help by friends, colleagues, and family members. This is especially the case for breadwinners who still provide for their families despite misusing substances. This may cause serious long-term health issues that would have otherwise been avoidable with early intervention.2
  • Not immediately obvious. It can be difficult to see the differences between someone who enjoys work and another person who compulsively spends long hours in the workplace. A celebratory drink may not be so clearly different from one that makes things merely bearable for the individual.3,4
  • Societal approval. American culture, as it is, celebrates stories of hard workers, even in cases where their hard work causes potentially serious physical and psychological problems. A 2016 study of military veterans, for instance, shows that combat veterans are vulnerable to both ergomania and SUD in part to enablement by wider culture.5

Get Help for Work-related Substance Misuse

Ergomania may be an indicator of more serious problems. If you feel that you or someone close to you has an issue with both overworking and substance misuse, there is a possibility the two phenomena may be related. Call our team at (857) 577-8193 to find options for holistic SUD treatment in Massachusetts that may address the causes of both.

Resources:

  1. Van Houdenhove, B., & Neerinckx, E. (1999). Is” ergomania” a predisposing factor to chronic pain and fatigue?Psychosomatics40(6), 529-530.

 

  1. Carroll, J. J., & Robinson, B. E. (2000). Depression and parentification among adults as related to parental workaholism and alcoholismThe Family Journal8(4), 360-367.

 

  1. Andreassen, C. S., Griffiths, M. D., Sinha, R., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationships between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional studyPloS one11(5), e0152978

 

  1. Hopwood, C. J., Morey, L. C., Skodol, A. E., Sanislow, C. A., Grilo, C. M., Ansell, E. B., … & Stout, R. L. (2011). Pathological personality traits among patients with absent, current, and remitted substance use disordersAddictive behaviors36(11), 1087-1090.

 

  1. Purcell, N., Koenig, C. J., Bosch, J., & Maguen, S. (2016). Veterans’ perspectives on the psychosocial impact of killing in warThe Counseling Psychologist44(7), 1062-1099.