Workaholism In Humanity, and Why We Are Careening Towards A Globalized Disaster

To display his own might, Khal Drogo, a character from the Game of Thrones, walks into the blade swung by his opponent and lets it wound him. He displays his scar as a badge of honour, and receives adulation from his tribesmen. Eventually, however, he succumbs to the obviously developing infection.

Society as a whole finds it easy to shun Khal Drogo’s self-harming action. After all, something as intangible as pride does not warrant risking sickness and death, does it?

Then why is it that society continues to hypocritically advocate for obviously-dangerous behaviour like overworking, asks Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Christinia Maslach.

Before outlining the disastrous consequences of encouraging workaholism, it is important to create a dichotomy between internal workaholism and societal workaholism. Usually, workaholics suffer from internal workaholism and use their jobs as a medium of escaping issues that bother them in life- and internal workaholism is only reinforced by societal encouragement. Thus, this article will be about ‘Workaholism In Humanity, and Why We Are Careening Towards A Globalized Disaster’, with a particular emphasis on society’s obsession with the same.

The problem is, the society and media fail to make a clear distinction between working hard and toxic levels of workaholism. The media glamourizes that one Elon Musk who works himself to death for a 100-hours a week and succeeds, without talking about the thousands who work themselves to death, without ever rising back. The point I am making is that hard work is a positive trait so long as it fuels our ambition to work towards our professional or financial goals and motivates us to channelise our potential to its highest ability. The problem arises when hard work borders on workaholism and thereby we lose track of the essence of life.

Now, let’s imagine the following scenario:

You taste a smidge of the joy it brings you, the way it numbs your pain, the way it makes you forget about your family problems or depression, even if only momentarily. Then, a smidge proves insufficient. A smidge turns into more and more and more, and soon you find yourself hooked.

It sounds like I’m describing a dangerous drug with immense potential for substance abuse. Society fears such drugs, and rightly so. 

Yet, heavy work investments follow the exact same pattern. Work may initially bring positive results, perhaps in the form of over achieving targets. This provides fulfilment which in turn provides much-needed respite. However, the results are just that- initial. Longer and longer hours need to be poured into work to maintain a positive feedback loop, till eventually the worker burns out, and everything comes crashing down- exactly like a drug addiction. This gives further incentive to look towards work as a means of gaining fulfillment, which creates a vicious cycle that tears the very soul of a worker apart.

In fact, ground breaking studies conducted in Norway covering thousands of workers attempt to find a link between psychological disorders and workaholic tendencies. The results were frightening. A higher percentage (25-35%) of workaholics than non-workaholics met the criteria for ADHD, OCD and anxiety. It was unclear whether workaholism caused the issues, if the issues led to workaholism, or if the answer lay somewhere in between. However, the one absolute conclusion we can draw from this study is that there is a strong correlation between workaholism and psychological disorders.

The fallout of workaholism isn’t limited to psychological disorders- according to Bryan Robinson, Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, a marriage where at least one of the spouses was a workaholic had a 40% higher chance of ending in divorce. A study by the Australian National University also revealed that 60% of couples (where at least one was a workaholic) had a hard time balancing work-life commitments and expressed dissatisfaction about the same. Statistics in a study by Chan, Ngan, and Wong show that over-workers have a 67% higher chance of developing coronary diseases. Numerous studies lead to similar conclusions. A survey by Huffington Post on 1,200 self-admitted workaholics revealed that 25% don’t take any breaks at all, and 20% spend no more than 10 minutes on their lunch breaks. The remaining only spent about 20 minutes on break. The statistics become more worrying when we realize that the 1,200 self-admitted workaholics are probably better off than those who don’t admit they have the issue.

Clearly, workaholism wreaks havoc in one’s personal life. However, it also has wider implications for society. The status quo is one that is capitalist on a large scale- if employees pour in longer hours into work, they provide more leeway to employers to abuse them by giving them more ‘opportunities’ to work overtime without financial compensation, constantly assigning them work outside their contractual obligations without renumeration, and more.

Such steps have a two-fold effect- firstly, the toxic behaviour of workaholics is enabled, allowing them to further justify negating all aspects of their life except work. Secondly, it sets a dangerous precedent. As stated earlier, employers have further excuses to encourage workaholism amongst workaholic and non-workaholics alike. Those who refuse to conform simply lose their position to someone who is willing to work all night long and sacrifice sleep for work. This is a commonly cited reason for Japanese workers being unwilling to take paid leave. On an average, they use only 52% of their annual paid leave because they are afraid of setting a bad impression with managers.

Beyond the psychological and societal pressure, one cannot rule out how a middle-class family is often struggling to make ends meet. Inflation, rising aspirations for better academic institutions, rising healthcare costs, etc. are steering breadwinners to put in longer and longer hours at work. Employees are forced to support the very capitalistic institutions that seek to oppress them, to crush them underfoot.

The pandemic, despite its tragic nature, has thankfully opened our eyes to the importance of a healthy work-life balance, since digitization has led to the destruction of all boundaries between our personal and professional selves. Employers are abusing their employees due to ‘extenuating circumstances’. Employees are exiting industries and jobs if they feel they are being mistreated. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, in leisure and hospitality alone, a record breaking 1 million workers in the USA quit their jobs in just November of 2021. Unsurprisingly, leisure and hospitality workers also remain the most underpaid with average hourly earnings of just 19 USD. 

Unfortunately, simply quitting isn’t enough. There is a dire need for a practical solution that involves the government collaborating with the private sector.

Top priority must be given to implementing a 4-day work-week model. This means that workers are accorded 3 days of rest, enough to recuperate, complete weekly tasks for their homes, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. The model of a 4-day work week is one that is already successful. Iceland set a perfect global precedent through a truncated work week. From 2015-2019, Iceland conducted case studies of 35-to-36-hour work weeks, without any cuts in pay. The study was successful- worker stress reduced, burnout lessened, and there was an improvement in work-life balance. Now, nearly 90% of the Icelandic working population benefits from reduced work hours. Scotland too is considering implementing reduced work weeks, based on the success of the Icelandic Model.

Microsoft Japan gave 2,300 employees the opportunity to choose a variety of flexible work styles, and reported an unprecedented successthe workers were happier and 40% more productive than earlier. Panasonic is also offering its employees the option of taking a four -day workweek. 35 North American companies ranging from start-ups to large global corporations are re-evaluating this new working model. Unilever allowed all its New Zealand office employees to work for four days per week for a year, and is now considering a shake up to its workflow in a larger context.

Thus, it is imperative for governments to step up and collaborate with corporations. However, no amount of mere legislation can actually make companies follow the government, especially in larger, developing countries like India. Thus, the government must provide economic incentives for companies to implement 4-day work weeks by providing tax slab reductions based on profit, subsidies, monetary compensation, etc. A stricter control over employer-employee contracts must be exercised to prevent authority from being abused. Training and development programmes must be put in place to encourage positive communication amongst co-workers and managers.  Communication is essential to assuage fears of losing one’s position due to cutthroat competition. Managers too need to be cautioned that workers are not commodities to be bought and traded, but humans with values that hold weight extending far beyond mere productivity.

Still, workaholism is often more than just a matter of inaccurate legislation. It is a belief held by society, and it is impossible to destroy a widely held belief in just a handful of years. Still, we can do something else- push for change at the grassroot levels. Dismantle the long-held ‘values’ that encourage self-destructive behaviours. Children grow up inculcating the values they are introduced to, so it is clearly not unfeasible for them to learn the value of prioritizing their mental and physical health over achieving success as defined by society. Mental health talks need to be encouraged more, far more than they are right now. Only if we as a society implement these solutions can we move away from the Khal Drogo archetype- a step away from showcasing humanity’s ugliest scar, workaholism, as a badge of honour.