I’ve been one in the past, and I’ve definitely met a few throughout the years. That week I was on sick leave but still volunteered to work from home and ended up working overtime daily without anyone asking me to do so, and without anyone praising me for it, it will always haunt me.
But what really hit me was the realisation that there are core differences between an authentic workaholic and a circumstantial one. Eventually, what helped me tell one from the other was one thing: resistance. Resistance to become consumed by your professional identity.
Because you can work a lot, really a lot, and still not be a workaholic. The problem starts when the line between personal and professional life becomes blurry. Or better said, when the line becomes a barely seen dot on the horizon at the expense of your personal life. The keyword here is work-life balance but in a much deeper sense than what we’ve been taught so far. A sense that goes beyond effective time management skills and being a master in prioritising. In other words, seemingly having you sh*t together doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing life right.
As in most addictive behaviours, the target is the mind. Unfortunately, a mental parameter dresses the roots of the problem into well-disguised excuses, making both the diagnosis and the treatment a real challenge. Let me expose the trap here to save you some time. Where are your thoughts travelling when you are not working? Now, if your answer revolves mainly around promotions, salaries and pending tasks, meetings and emails, you might have to think twice about whether you are on the right path or not. Or, even worse, if you cannot recall the last time you were not working except when you were sleeping, you should definitely challenge yourself to think even more than twice.
There is so much power in thoughts. Thoughts rule us and define us. “You can kill a thinker, but you can’t kill the thought”, said Terry Hayes in his book I am Pilgrim. A little too macabre of an argument but, sometimes, you need a bit of a stretch to prove a point. It would be superficial and oversimplified to label anyone who works a lot as a workaholic. There is a vital difference between the healthy desire to work obsessively on a passion project and the unhealthy need to work relentlessly just for the sake of working. Workaholism is a mental state that goes beyond late working hours and career aspirations. It has nothing to do with work ethic or work engagement. Workaholism is an addiction, a work addiction, and as such, it needs to be diagnosed and treated before it backfires.
However, it is precisely this difficulty to identify the actual symptoms of workaholism that leads to the systematic exploitation of workers. Capitalising on workaholism is a true sign of our times, though a really well-camouflaged one. In our society, the harder you work, the more you are praised, which would be fair and square as long as we knew where to draw the line. But, how hard is hard enough? And, most importantly, who is responsible for safeguarding a healthy balance? Is it personal responsibility, corporate responsibility or, maybe, a combination of both?
Laying it on the line, the answers to the above are yet to be found. Even though workaholism is not a newly introduced term, it still feels like walking in uncharted territory when trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We have the knowledge and tools, but somehow, we still ended up with a skyrocketing 30% of the population suffering from workaholism. And these are only the diagnosed cases of this devious mental illness.
We had known about workaholism since 1971 when American Psychologist Wayne E. Oates defined it as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly” in his book Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. Oates found similarities between alcohol addiction and work addiction, which is not something to take lightly. Several well-designed studies followed labelling workaholism as a pathology (Fassel, 1990), “a behaviour pattern that persists across multiple organisational settings” (Scott, Moore & Miceli, 1997) and “a syndrome comprised of high drive, high work involvement, and low work enjoyment” ( Aziz & Zickar, 2006 ).
An addiction, a pathology, a behaviour pattern and a syndrome. All words are used to describe mental illness. And even new terms were invented to highlight the scale of the problem. For instance, with Japanese spending up to 70 hours per week at the office, the threatening term “karoshi” emerged, which literally translates into “overwork death”. By 2021, workaholism is not only solidly defined but can also be accurately measured by including tools like the Bergen Work Addiction Scale into the company’s HR practices.
There is a straightforward question arising from the above: How did we end up cultivating a corporate culture that rewards an addiction? The complexity of the addiction’s misleading signs holds the answer, and this is where we need to start digging. Work addiction can be confused with work success, and work success, in turn, can be confused with life success. The working environment sometimes encourages unhealthy competition among employees, openly implying that promotions and bonuses will be generously offered to those employees who will burn the midnight oil to go over and beyond. In other words, overachieving is slowly replacing achieving and becoming the new norm.
But besides the obvious explanation that corporate culture occasionally turns a blind eye to health issues only to prioritise profit, we can not just ignore the mere fact that workaholism is one of the few addictions that has no negative consequences in the beginning. If anything, it is highly connected with wealth and other peoples’ admiration and recognition. Workaholics may even be presented as role models sometimes. It takes time for workaholics to see the ugly face of their addiction and start paying the high price of their overcommitment.
Because it is inevitable to pay the price. Pushing physical and mental limits by obsessing over one specific area of life – in this case, the professional one – will cause damage. Damage in all forms of wellbeing – physical, mental and social. This “high” achieved through working might result in occupational burnout, chronic stress, dysthymia, anxiety disorders and even depression (*). Furthermore, the high cortisol levels, or else called the stress hormone, are indissolubly connected with lousy sleep patterns and insomnia (**) .
If mental health is not taken care of, physical symptoms will follow as well. High blood pressure and increased susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases are among the most common ones (***). Within such living conditions, personal relations can be harmed, too. Isolation, irritability and depersonalisation are only a few to name (****). However, the irony and what makes workaholism a vicious circle is saved for last. Since human beings are not machines and, therefore, have a certain capacity, job satisfaction and performance will eventually decrease, leaving the person behind the addiction more vulnerable and confused (*****).
So, take care of yourselves, people! No one else will do it for you yet! Work addiction is under the microscope, and baby steps are being taken globally to change how we think about it and how we act on it. But, as it happens with everything that needs a drastic mindset shift, workaholism is still something you need to keep an eye on. Prevention is always better than treatment.
(*) – (*****) : for anyone interested to delve deeper into how workaholism may affect our overall health, excellent scientific resources are provided in the following link: https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts