A first-ever study on the cognitive processes of work addicts

A first-ever study on the cognitive processes of work addicts
In a pioneering study, researchers of the Faculty of Education and Psychology (PPK) at ELTE have explored the cognitive traits of people with a work addiction. Their results have found several fundamental differences in the memory and inhibitory control of the participants.

Although, at first glance, work addiction may seem like a useful addiction in several regards, its associated negative consequences are actually on par with those of other behavioural addictions such as gambling addiction or sex addiction. Work addiction is not considered to be an official mental disorder yet, and the phenomenon has no generally accepted definition as of now. What is certain, however, is that the people affected experience an excessive compulsion to work to such an extent that their physical health, mental health, personal relationships and social life suffer noticeably as a result. Whenever they are not working, these people experience psychological withdrawal symptoms, and all their attempts at reducing their workload usually fail.

More experts are getting preoccupied with this problem since

the prevalence of work addiction, depending on the country, is estimated between 7% and 40%,

meaning that a significant proportion of the population falls into the affected group. For a long time, there had been no studies regarding those cognitive processes that can be linked to work addiction. To fill this gap, the researchers at ELTE PPK, together with their colleagues, set out to create the cognitive profile of work addiction, and went on to publish their results in the Scientific Reports journal. The personal examination involved two groups, one with people who were at a high risk for work addiction and the other with people with a lower risk factor. Both groups had to complete various neuropsychological tests and memory tasks.

Comparing the results of the examination, the researchers found several differences in the working memory performance and the so-called inhibitory control of the high-risk versus low-risk groups. The high-risk group, for instance, proved to be better in tasks targeting the short-term retention of information. Traits like perseverance, conscientiousness and perfectionism likely allowed them to perform well in these simple memory tasks. However, the high-risk group performed worse in more complex tasks that involved not only the retention of information but its continuous update and management as well. A possible explanation might be that these people are usually overloaded, which puts them at a disadvantage when completing more complex tasks. Multitasking may also play an emphatic role in work addiction insofar as multitasking can be connected to a limited working memory capacity. This might be the main reason behind the fact that although people with a work addiction

spend more time working than their colleagues, they do not perform better.

Another finding of the study is that people in the high-risk group possess poorer inhibitory control. This means that they find it harder to suppress irrelevant thoughts and impulses, which often leads to impulsive, uncontrolled reactions. Inhibitory control also plays an important role in organisation and planning, so any decline in the inhibitory control can have serious adverse effects on the quality of life and performance of these people. Another manifestation of impulsive behaviour is that people with a work addiction often undertake more tasks and jobs than they can handle because they do not take their capacity into consideration. The increased workload, in turn, leads to work addiction symptoms and behaviours.

It is still uncertain whether these cognitive differences constitute a risk factor for the development of work addiction or, on the contrary, the decline in memory performance and inhibitory control starts after developing the addiction. Further research is needed to establish the exact correlations; however, the present study is already a major step towards the diagnosis of work addiction and the discovery of potential treatment options.