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Whatever happened to 'Workaholism'?

Why the term has disappeared and why that should concern us

Psychology Today | Anna Katharina Schaffner


Recently I came across a quotation that troubled me. I found it in Anne Helen Petersen’s book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (2021). She writes: “Today, the workaholism first diagnosed amongst boomers has become so commonplace as to no longer even be considered a pathology.”[1]


In other words, Petersen argues that workaholism is now the norm. Like the air we breathe, we don’t even see it. What is worse, workaholism has not just become normalized, but it is also widely valorized. More often than not, working too hard is not seen as a problem that requires treatment but rather as a sign of commitment, engagement being goal-oriented, ambitious, and important. Given that our work–life balance is a powerful indicator of our individual health and well-being, however, this is a deeply unsettling development.[2]


Workaholism is defined as an excessive need to work that interferes with our bodily health, personal happiness, and interpersonal relations. It is associated with low levels of psychological well-being and high levels of emotional distress. Workaholism can have a seriously negative impact on our health because workaholics tend not to get enough leisure time, exercise, or sleep.[3] It is fair to say, then, that workaholism is pretty catastrophic at all levels—mentally, physically, and socially.


The concept of workaholism was first coined in the 1970s. W. E. Oates described it as “the compulsive and uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”[4] He defined a workaholic as someone who spends more than 50 hours a week working. Only a few decades ago, workaholism and its dangers loomed large in the cultural imagination. We worried about those who worked too much, and we quite literally thought of them as addicted, and of work as a drug. But, today, the term workaholism has almost vanished from our vocabulary. Is that the case because, as Peterson argues, working too much has simply become the new norm? Or are there other reasons for its disappearance?


It is no exaggeration to say that, as a society, we are obsessed with work. Many of us are unable to stop thinking about it or to resist the urge to invest all our time and effort into it. We may prioritize work over other core basic needs, even if that causes serious damage to our relationships, bodies, and minds. We may feel anxiety when we aren’t working, be fixated on work-related success, and live in constant fear of being judged a failure.5 A recent report by the American Psychological Association found that burnout and stress are at an all-time high across professions, having been significantly heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.[6]


I believe that there are both structural and inner causes for our collective obsession with work. Many of us now find ourselves working in burnout cultures—organisations in which everyone works too much all the time, including line managers and CEOs.

If we are embedded in such a culture, it is incredibly hard to be the only one to leave the office early and to defend our work–life boundaries. If nobody else role-models healthy working behaviour, we will be the outlier, and get a reputation for not being a team player or not being properly committed to our work. People may even think of us as lazy or shirkers. Many of my coaching clients describe that they feel enormous pressure to conform in such “last out of the office wins” environments and that it seems a thing of impossibility to challenge the impossibly high working hour standards that everybody else seems to have accepted. We can also see that a concept such as workaholism would have absolutely no purchase in such a culture. It has indeed, as Peterson argued, become the norm.


Because there are now many acknowledged external causes for our predilection to work too much, we have seen the rise of the term "burnout." Burnout’s ascent, I would argue, has substantially contributed to the decline of the term workaholism. Workaholism implies that our inability to stop working is a personal problem, one that is in the same category of other addictions, such as alcoholism, gambling, and drug addictions. It is an individual ailment.

Burnout, by contrast, at least acknowledges the wider structural reasons that contribute to our compulsion to work too much. Burnout is a wider cultural problem. Strictly speaking, burnout is a condition caused by toxic working environments and wider cultural attitudes to work that adversely impact our mental health. Not everyone sees it that way, however, and many still treat burnout as a condition caused by a lack of resilience and poor stress management.


But even if we are not under constant peer pressure to give our all, and more, to work, we may find ourselves unable to stop working. We can be our own bad bosses. This has to do with wider cultural attitudes to work. The writer and burnout expert Jonathan Malesic argues that work in the 21st century has become inextricably entangled with meaning, purpose, our identities, and with self-realization. Burnout, he writes, is “an ailment of the soul. We burn out in large part because we believe work is the sure path to social, moral, and spiritual flourishing.”[7]


This entanglement is another reason why the condition of workaholism has become so ubiquitous that it has made the term redundant. Many of us find it incredibly difficult to extricate our sense of self-worth and value from our work. And it is hard. It usually requires therapy or coaching. Once work, value, worth, and meaning have become intertwined, it is very difficult to pull them apart again.


Working all the time is also rooted in a fear of being alone with ourselves and our thoughts and feelings. Many of us find it increasingly hard just to be rather than constantly to do. It is a catch-22 situation: The more we work, the more our nonwork life will become impoverished. When we finally do pause, we might find that our lives have become quite empty—that they lack nourishing relationships, joy, warmth, and fun.


There is a peculiar sadness attached to 21st-century work. For work is not just the drug of choice for the workaholic, it is our collective narcotic, a new opiate of the masses. We are working more hours than ever. Many of us perform tasks we believe do not really need to be performed in the first place. “The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound,” David Graeber writes. “There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves,” he argues. “We have become a civilization based on work—not even ‘productive work’ but work as an end and meaning in itself.…It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement.”[8]


It may, sadly, be true, then, that workaholism has become so ubiquitous a condition that the term has become more or less redundant. What is reassuring, however, is that other concepts such as "burnout" and especially "burnout culture" ensure that our collective tendency to work too hard is no longer only seen as an individual problem. There appears to be a growing acknowledgment that our individual attitudes to work are rooted in a much wider cultural ailment.


References

1. Anne Helen Petersen, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (London: Chatto & Windus, 2021), p. 186 2. K. M. Matuska, ‘Workaholism, Life Balance, and Well-Being: A Comparative Analysis’, Journal of Occupational Science, 17 (2010), 104–111. 3. See, for example, R. J. Burke, ‘Workaholism in Organizations: Psychological and Physical Well-Being Consequences’, Stress Medicine, 16 (2000), 11–16; R. Snir & I. Harpaz, ‘The Workaholism Phenomenon: A Cross-National Perspective’, Career Development International, 11 (2006), 374–393; and T. W. H. Ng, K. L. Sorensen & D. C. Feldman, ‘Dimensions, Antecedents, and Consequences of Workaholism: A Conceptual Integration and Extension’, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 28 (2007), 111–136. 4. W. E. Oates, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction (New York: World, 1971). 5. C. Balducci, P. Spagnoli & M. Clark, ‘Advancing Workaholism Research’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 17, 2020, p. 9435. 6. American Psychological Association (APA), 2022 Trend Report: Stress and Burnout are Everywhere, 1 January 2022. Online at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress. 7. Jonathan Malesic, The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains us and How to Build a Better Life (Oakland, CA: California University Press, 2022), p. 3. 8. David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (London: Allen Lane, 2018).


Image: Hernan Sanchez @Unsplash.


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