Colored image of a woman sleeping at a desk

Anthropology: Exploration of Workaholism and Its Effect on American Society

Work addiction – often called workaholism – is the only socially acceptable addiction. Like any addiction, it is often linked to mental health problems. In fact, workaholism may also be the result of underlying or coexisting mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder. Work addiction is a real condition that affects 48% of Americans and has a huge impact on individuals as well as society as a whole. This article will explore workaholism and its implications in American society.

Workaholism definition

The term “workaholic” was coined in 1971 by the psychologist Wayne E. Oates. It refers to “an uncontrollable need to work incessantly” (Brummelhuis and Rothbard, 2018). It is defined in various ways and refers to various types of behavioral patterns, but it is generally characterized by working excessive hours (beyond the workplace or financial requirements) (Clockify, 2022). Although workaholism is often associated with paying jobs, it may also refer to independent pursuits and hobbies, such as sports, music, art, and science.

colored image of a person multitaskin
Image: Ira Wolfe at linkedin.com

Types of workaholics

The definitions of workaholism and the types of workaholism identified by various researchers have changed over the years. Originally, Oates (1971) recognized four types of workaholics:

  1. The dyed-in-the-wool workaholics are perfectionists who take work seriously and only aim for the highest performance standards.
  2. The converted workaholics set limits to their work hours and aim to have and enjoy free time.
  3. Situational workaholics don’t have a typical workaholic personality but aim to achieve high standards in certain situations.
  4. The pseudo or escapist workaholics mimic the behavior of workaholics in order to gain or maintain a high position at work, or they use work as a way to escape their unhappy home life (Clockify, 2022).

Over the years, Robinson (2012), identified four types of workaholism and two axes of workaholics: work intuition and work completion.

  1. The bulimic who makes it a point to do the job perfectly or not at all. They have high work completion.
  2. the relentless who are compulsively driven to work quickly and meet deadlines, and who find it difficult to stop working. Similar to the bulimic type, they have high work completion.
  3. the savoring who is consumed by a preoccupation with details. This type has low initiation and low completion.
  4. the attention-deficit who start numerous projects/ventures but become easily dulled and restless, continually motivated to seek further challenges. These are the ones with high work initiation and low work completion.

Workaholic traits

Nearly half of employed Americans consider themselves workaholics. There are various causes and effects of this problem, and many signs that can tell whether someone is a workaholic or not.

Workaholics tend to continually think about work, even outside of working hours. According to researchers, workaholics show various traits that tell about their unhealthy working habits. According to the article by Schmall (2019), and the survey of 2,000 employed Americans, the top traits of workaholics include:

  • Prioritizing work before personal life (54% of cases)
  • Worrying about work on a day off (51% of cases)
  • Having difficulties switching off, or working on vacations (50% of cases)
  • Checking emails during the night (48% of cases)
  • Being the first to arrive at work, and the last to leave (46% of cases)

Other signs of workaholism include trouble delegating work, neglecting other aspects of one’s non-working life, and incorporating other aspects of life into work (Cheng, MD., 2018).

The differences between workaholism and working long hours

Workaholism is not the same as work engagement or working long hours. In fact, workaholism does not increase productivity and usually leads to negative outcomes, rather than positive.

According to Jullien Gordon, a LinkedIn Influencer and the Founding Partner of New Higher, “high performance and workaholism look the same on the outside. They both look like hard work. The big difference is how the individual feels on the inside about who they are in relationship to their work.” (bbc.com).

The difference between healthy and unhealthy work habits is that people who simply work long hours or work hard are focused on a certain priority because they need to finish it before a deadline. Therefore, they put extra effort and often extra hours into accomplishing the task they need to finish. Once that’s done, they go back to their normal work routine (Clockify, 2022). People with healthy working habits, who are engaged workers, find what they do pleasurable and they truly enjoy it (Clark, 2018).

Workaholics, on the other hand, work hard because they feel the need to feel busy (Clockify, 2022). They don’t work because they enjoy it, but rather because they feel an inner compulsion to do so (Clark, 2018). They feel guilty and secure if they are not busy. This insecurity is often rooted in stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and sleep and intimacy problems. Stress levels in workaholics are often chronic, leading to ongoing wear and tear on the body (Brummelhuis and Rothbard, 2018).

The possible drivers of workaholism

According to the article on the four drivers of Workaholism by Clark (2018), the explanation for what causes workaholism stems from the desire to fulfill basic psychological needs. One of such needs is the need for competence. Some people spend excessive time and mental energy working in an effort to feel competent, especially if they don’t feel competent in other areas of their lives.

In addition to this, there are various deeply rooted issues that can also lead to work addiction. According to various psychological studies focusing on the issue of workaholism, people affected by work addiction (including people around workaholics) may be reliving patterns from their past, and use work as a way to ease, or even ignore emotional issues and trauma (Clark, 2018).

 Effects of working excessively

According to the article “How Being a Workaholic Differs from Working Long Hours – and Why That Matters for Your Health”, by Brummelhuis and Rothbard (2018), one of the negative outcomes of workaholism is chronic stress levels. When you cope with stress and you’re facing an important deadline, your stress hormones, pro-and anti-inflammatory cytokines, and blood pressure are likely to increase.

But after the deadline, these would return to their “set points” (original levels). People who work excessive hours and continually push their systems, thus they can re-set the set points. Increased blood pressure may become chronic. As a result, workaholics are at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, and even death (Brummelhuis and Rotherbard, 2018).

Workaholism also has negative outcomes for the family, as family satisfaction declines, and marital dissatisfaction and work-life conflicts rise. At the individual level, workaholism decreases life satisfaction, physical health, and emotional health. There is a higher chance of burnout, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and depersonalization. Finally, there is no relationship between professional efficiency or work performance and workaholism (Clockify, 2022).

A diagram showing outcomes of workaholism
Summary of significant outcomes of workaholism; a positive sign indicates a positive outcome, a negative sign – a negative outcome, ns indicates no significant relationship (researchgate.net)

The relationship between workaholism and psychiatric disorders

Other significant health consequences related to work addiction include higher work-related stress and job burn-out rates, anger, depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches (Chang, MD, 2010).

This has been supported by a study conducted by Adreassen et al. (2016) who found a correlation between workaholism and symptoms of psychiatric disorders. According to the researchers, 32.7% of the individuals classified as workaholics met the screening cut-off for clinical levels of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). In comparison, only 12.7% of non-workaholics met the clinical ADHD level. Furthermore, 33.8% of workaholics met the clinical levels for anxiety, and only 11.9% of non-workaholics met the clinical levels for anxiety. Similarly, 8.9% of the individuals classified as workaholics met the clinical levels for depression, while only 2.6% of non-workaholics met the clinical levels for depression. Finally, 25.6% of workaholics met the clinical levels for OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and only 8.7% of non-workaholics met the clinical levels for OCD.

Workaholism and digital eye strain

According to research, the average employed American experiences four eye-related pains or discomforts a day. The majority of people say that they would experience less eye discomfort if they didn’t have to stare at screens all day. The eye discomforts include eye strain, dry eyes, headaches, blurred vision, and neck and shoulder pain. These symptoms are referred to as digital eye strain caused by using digital devices for more than two hours per day. Almost 67% of American adults use two or more devices simultaneously. Meanwhile, almost 60% report experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain. According to studies, digital eye strain is continually increasing among Americans (Schmall, 2019). This can especially impact workaholics, as it is another negative effect of work addiction.

Workaholism in the context of cultures around the world

Americans are one of the top workaholic countries in the world, and workaholism is a self-identified trait of many Americans today. Almost half of Americans consider themselves workaholics, but only 28% claim they overwork because they have to for financial reasons. Some studies suggest, however, that only 10% of Americans have a true, diagnosed addiction to work. This suggests that workaholism is a complex phenomenon that causes confusion among people about what it really is (Griffiths et al. 2011 in Clockify, 2022).

Despite being one of the top workaholic populations in the world, Americans are 11th in the world in terms of yearly hours worked by the average worker. The top ten countries in terms of hours worked are Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Korea, Russia, Croatia, Malta, Chile, Romania, and Israel. However, the average work hours are slightly decreasing and countries such as Germany, Spain, Japan, and the U.S. are showing around 1000 hours decrease between last year and this year (Dunlap, 2021).

According to a study from Stanford University (2014), working more hours does not lead to increased production. The study suggests that working more than 50 hours in a week decreases productivity per hour. As a result, working 70 hours a week leads to the same amount of productivity as working 55 hours. Therefore, there were 15 extra hours  (Dunlap, 2021).

statistical graph illustrating average annual hour worked in OECD countries
Average working hours statistical data from 2021 according to Clockify (clockify.me)

Mexico – the most overworked nation in the world

The average annual hours worked in Mexico is 2,484 hours. An average Mexican person works about 48.5 hours per week. Almost 30% of  Mexican employees work over 50 hours per week. According to a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico is also one of the countries with the highest work-related stress. In addition to this, estimates suggest that 85% of corporations in Mexico are toxic, and “fail to provide adequate conditions for their employees and to look after their human talent”. They also have been found to encourage stress, causing work addiction, burnout syndrome, harassment at work, and “loafing” (El Universal, 2018).

‘Karoshi’ – “overwork death” in Japan

In 2016, 488 million people worldwide were exposed to working long hours (Pega et al., 2021). In countries, such as Japan, workaholism is considered a serious social problem, leading to ‘karoshi’, meaning “overwork death”. Death from working excessively is sudden and often caused by a heart attack or stroke and is due to high stress and starvation. Karoshi can also happen through suicide caused by mental stress due to work. This phenomenon is also increasing in other parts of Asia. According to data on exposure to heart disease and stroke attributed to long working hours in 194 countries, 745 194 deaths worldwide were caused by long working hours in 2016 (Pega et al., 2021). The Japanese worked more hours per week than all other nationalities (Snir and Harpaz, 2006).

Cultural significance of workaholism in anthropology

Various social science subjects provide different explanations for the issue of workaholism. Anthropologists give explanations of the roots of workaholism, which is useful for understanding and, thus offering a solution focusing on a less work-intensive model. According to anthropological evidence, our early ancestors lived leisurely lives some hundreds of thousands of years ago. However, in the early days of agriculture, humans became obsessed with hard work because hard work was essential for survival. Otherwise, drought or flood could cause mass starvation (Stillaman, 2022).

Thanks to technology today, people do not have to face extreme starvation or shortages. In fact, we work more than we need in order to provide decent living conditions for everyone. Thus, anthropologists suggest that innovations such as the four-day workweek and universal basic income may help in shifting back towards a more leisurely lifestyle in some cultures (Stillman, 2022).

 

References:

Adreassen, C., S., Griffiths, M., Sinha, R., Hetland, J., Pallesen, S. (2016) “The Relationship Between Workaholism and Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders: A Large-Scale Cross-Sectional Study”. Available: nih.gov

BBC Worklife. “Are You a Workaholic? Or Simply Hard Working?”. Available: BBC Worklife

Brummeljuis, L., and Rothbard, N., P. (2018) “How Being a Workaholic Differs from Working Long Hours – and Why That Matters for Your Health”. Available: hbr.org

Chang, L., MD.(2010) “Are You a Workaholic?”. Available: webmd.com

Clark, M. (2018) “These are the Four Drivers of Workaholism”. Available: astcompany.com

Clockify (2022) “Workaholism Facts: Everything You Need to Know About Workaholism”. Available: clockify.me

Dunlap, K. (2021) “Does America Have More Workaholics Than Any Other Nation? The Data Might Surprise You”. Available: ksat.com

El Universal (2018) “Mexico, One of the Countries with the Highest Work-related Stress, Says UNAM”. Available: eluniversal.com.mx

Pega, F. et al. (2021) “Global, Regional, and National Burdens of Ischemic Heart Disease and Stroke Attributable to Exposure to Long Working Hours for 194 Countries, 2000–2016: A Systematic Analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury.” Environment international. Sep. 154. Available: nih.gov

Schmall, T. (2019) “Almost Half of Americans Consider Themselves ‘Workaholics’”. Available: nypost.com

Snir, R., and Harpaz, I. (2006) “The Workaholism Phenomenon: A Cross-National Perspective”. Career Development International. Vol. 11., No. 5. Available: researchgate.net

Stillman, J. (2022) “For 95 Percent of Human History, People Worked 15 Hours a Week. Could We Do it Again?”. Available: Inc.com

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