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Workaholism: Addiction or Lifestyle? (33rd International conference on Mental and Behavioral Health)

Uploaded 3/23/2021, approx. 24 minute read

Thank you for having me in this conference. My apologies that I am unable to delay my presentation.

I have other obligations with clients. They are scheduled with timetables and everything.

I cannot reschedule them. They are all over the world as well.

My name is Sam Vaknin. I am a professor of psychology in Southern Federal University, Rostov-on-Don in Russia, and I am a professor of finance and a professor of psychology in the Outreach Program of SIAS-CIAPS, Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies.

My contract obligates me to use this introduction in all my presentations, so you have my deepest apologies for inflicting it on you.


Today I would like to discuss workaholism. Is it an addiction or is it a lifestyle?

Here is an unpleasant taboo fact. We have a very conflicted relationship with work.

Work keeps us alive. Work sustains us. Work is a part of our identity. Work carries us forward through the day. Work gives meaning to our lives.

And yet we hate, many of us, hate going to work.

And this is why recently, when I say recently, I mean in the last two or three hundred years, we had created another sphere of life, leisure.

There's work and there's leisure. We love leisure. We hate work.

No one says they hate their work because it's politically incorrect.

But studies and surveys have shown that the vast majority of people are not happy with their jobs and go to work very reluctantly.

In Japan, there is a word, koroshi. Koroshi means death, death, literal, physical death by overworking.

Herbert Freudenberger coined the term burnout in 1974. That's a lot of time ago.

And the ICD edition 11, the International Classification of Diseases, published by the World Health Organization, Edition 11, the latest, recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon.

In other words, not as a pathology, but it is an inevitable outcome of going to work, burnout.

So how can we tell apart workaholism from other work-related phenomena?

For example, work investment or work engagement or pleasuring work.

Well, workaholism is closely associated with mental health disorders and it has negative consequences.

Workaholism had been associated with job stress, work-life imbalances, interpersonal difficulties, the aforementioned burnout, workplace conflict and adverse health outcomes.

Libey May defined workaholic as a work-obsessed individual who gradually becomes emotionally crippled and addicted to power and control in a compulsive drive to gain approval and public recognition of success.

And if this sounds a lot like narcissism, it's because it is, as you will see a bit later.

Overall, it is estimated that eight percent of people had what we call workaholism, defined as being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation and investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas.


I want to read to you a few of the questions that we use in a typical workaholism questionnaire.

Do you think of how you can free more time to work? Do you spend much more time working than initially intended? Do you work in order to reduce feelings of anxiety, guilt, helplessness or depression? Have you been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them? Do you become stressed if you are prohibited from working? Do you deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities and or exercise because of your work? Do you work so much that it has negatively influenced your health?

You see that workaholism is not just spending a lot of time at work. Spending a lot of time at work used to be the standard until the middle of the 20th century. Long before the Industrial Revolution, people were very proud of their work. People identified with their work. People bragged about the quality of their products and they were intimately connected to the products. They were artisans. They were apprentices of artisans.

Work was not something extraneous, something you did until you got back to your real life. Work was your real life.

People worked 12 and 16 hours a day in the fields, in factories and most of them, those who were blacksmiths and artists and painters, most of them were very, very attached to their work environment. They passed on the knowledge from one generation to the next in a regulated system of guilds and apprenticeships.

Then something happened in the middle of the 20th century.

We had divorced work. We had divorced work because automation came in, because diversions and entertainment became mass produced, because the internet broke out long before the internet television.

So suddenly work looked like your old first wife, you know, not exactly exciting anymore.

And we had created the new, we had minted the new concept of leisure.

Workaholism is when you can do only work and not leisure, when you can't do leisure.

But in this sense, perhaps many people had been workaholics without knowing it, like the famous scene in Moliere.

Workaholism caters to many psychological needs. It is a dimension of identity. It is gratifying. It ensures a sense of well-being. It guarantees narcissistic supply, attention. It generates performance anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sleep disorders, ADHD, anger, disappointment, irritation, hostility, tension and stress via compulsive control and ceaseless driven activity.

In other words, the best description of workaholism is self-medication.

It's a self-medicating, self-soothing activity in the same category as overeating. It has therefore strong addictive features.

I refer you to work by Graves, Ruderman, Olhot, Weber, for example, in 2012.

Number five, workaholism is augmented by insatiable, unattainable perfectionism.

In a National Center for Biotechnology Information NCBI study, they tried to see whether there is any connection between workaholism and narcissism, which is my field.

And the article was titled, Is narcissism associated with heavy work investment?

The moderating role of workload in the relationship between narcissism, workaholism and work engagement.

The lead author was Alessandra Falco, Damiano Giordi, but there were other authors.

And the authors concluded, narcissism was positively associated with workaholism and its dimensions of working excessively and working compulsively, but only in individuals facing a high workload.

Furthermore, narcissism was positively associated with work engagement and its dimensions of vigor and dedication, but not absorption in employees with average levels of workload.

Finally, the workload exacerbated the relationship between narcissism and work engagement and its dimensions so that these associations were stronger when the workload was high.

That's a very surprising result.

It seems that we don't become workaholics because we increase our workload.

Our workload creates our workaholism, not the other way.

It's not that we take on workload because we are workaholics, but when our workload increases, we become narcissistic workaholics.

It's, in other words, a reaction. It's what we call in psychology, reactance. It's a reactive pattern.

Workaholism is context dependent, is situational, and is intimately connected with narcissistic defenses.

I continue to quote from the article, Overall, our study suggested that in a work environment characterized by moderate levels of demand, individuals with strong narcissistic components might inherently feel energetic and dedicated, engaged at work.

Differently, in a demanding work environment, workers with high narcissism might experience higher work engagement, but they could also be at risk of workaholism.

Let's put it simply.

A demanding work environment where the workload is never ending, ever increasing, in such a demanding work environment, narcissistic people will be triggered and become workaholic.

It's amazing because, therefore, workaholism is not a dimension of personality or identity. It is a reaction, a defensive reaction.

You could even say a defense mechanism.

I continue to quote from the article, Although some researchers suggest workaholism to have some positive features, recent reviews and empirical studies have shown that workaholism is mostly associated with negative outcomes for both the individual and the organization, such as reduced job and life satisfaction, work-family conflict, physical and psychological symptoms, higher systolic blood pressure, cardiovascular risk, inflammatory response, sleep problems, reduced job performance, as well as sickness, absences and presentism.

On the contrary, work engagement, which is the opposite of workaholism, work engagement is mostly associated with positive outcomes for the individual and for the organization, such as physical and mental health, workability, work-family enrichment, job and life satisfaction, organizational commitment, as well as task and contextual performance.

We believe that building on the biopsychosocial model, this study contributed to the growing body of evidence about the interaction between personal and situational factors in explaining workaholism and work engagement, a bad and good form of heavy work investment, respectively.

More specifically, our study showed that narcissism was positively associated with workaholism and its dimensions only in individuals facing a high workload.

Furthermore, narcissism was positively associated with work engagement and its other dimensions in employees with average work levels of workload, as I've said before.

So, this opens a whole new vista, a whole new vista of thinking, because interventions in organizational contexts that are only focused on workaholism, interventions that are only focused on workload, regulating, smoothing out workload, reducing workload, are not going to work.

Interventions should deal also with narcissism.

If the intervention doesn't deal with narcissistic gratification, narcissistic supply, narcissistic rage, narcissistic control, narcissistic defenses, narcissistic self-state, if narcissism is ignored, interventions will not work.

Workaholism disrupts the life-work balance, so it can be conceived or re-conceived as a form of schizoid style.

Because when you're workaholic, when you have workaholism, you don't have emotions. You are mechanical. You are avoidant. These are schizoid features.

And, of course, the schizoid core, what Jeffrey Seinfeld calls the empty core, gantry, the empty core is deeply associated with narcissism. All schizoids are, to a large extent, narcissists.


I refer you to work by Fairburn, Gantry, and others.

So, workaholism, narcissism, schizoid reactions, no emotions, no friendships, no personal contacts, no sex, no intimacy, no family, work, work, work.

Work becomes all-consuming, and it is also grandiose.

Because when you're workaholic, your grandiosity tells you that no one can do the job as well as you.

The workaholic never delegates.

In a study in 2015 on women survivors of intimate partner violence, and another study in 2013 on survivors of childhood sexual abuse, we found out that these groups of people traumatized victims of abuse may be inclined to overwork.

So, it's a compensatory mechanism, intimately linked with reassertion of grandiosity.

You see, the abuse victim feels helpless. There is learned helplessness through intermittent reinforcement, through bullying.

So, the abuse victim feels helpless, and one way to regain control, retake control, one way to feel grandiosely ready to take on the world is to overwork.

Narcissism is a post-traumatic condition, don't forget this.

Of the big five personality traits, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness are weakly, weakly, positively related to workaholism.

Agreeableness is negatively related to workaholism.

I refer you to studies by Andreessen, Hetland, Palestine, 2010, Burke, Matheson, Palestine, 2006, Clark, Lechuk, Taylor, 2010, and others.

Type A personality, achievement motivation, perfectionism, they are strongly correlated with workaholism, as is narcissism.

And I refer you to work by Andreessen, Ersin, Ericsson, Palestine, 2012, Clark at Allies, 2010.

There was a paper published titled, The Relationships Between Workaholism and Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders, a large-scale cross-sectional study.

The lead author was Cecily Shue Andreessen and Mark D. Griffiths. And they found out amazing and frightening correlations between severe mental health disorders and workaholism.

And I'm saying frightening because workaholism is definitely on the increase, and it is a barometer, a seismograph of a tidal tsunami wave of mental health disorders.

We are much more mentally ill today than we had been 20 and 30 years ago.

By all standards, by all measures, I refer you, for example, to studies by Twenge, by Campbell.

The prevalence and incidence of depression disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, narcissism, personality disorders, is skyrocketing.

You could safely say that one third of the population is today technically, clinically, mentally unhealthy.

That's a staggering number, and it's associated with the rise in workaholism.

Listen to the authors of this article.

I quote, correlations between workaholism and all psychiatric disorder symptoms were positive and significant.

Basic demographics, age, gender, relationship status, and education explained only 1.2% of the variance in workaholism.

Work demographics, work status, position, sector, annual income explained an additional, meager, 5.4% of the variance.

Age and managerial positions were important, but they explained a very small percentage of the variance.

Psychiatric symptoms explained a huge part of the variance in workaholism.

Psychiatric symptoms such as ADHD, OCD, anxiety, depression, they explained 17% of the variance.

10, 15 times more than demographic features and three times more, three to four times more than the actual job, the actual workplace.

It seems that people with psychiatric disorders and personality disorders gravitate towards workaholism or positions that require workaholism.

ADHD, the authors continue. ADHD and anxiety contributed considerably. The prevalence rate of workaholism status was 7.8% of the sample, in line with other studies, by the way.

In an adjusted logistic regression analysis, all psychiatric symptoms were positively associated with being a workaholic.

The independent variables explained between 6.1 and 14.4% in total of the variance in workaholism cases.

Although most effect sizes were relatively small, the study's findings explain our understanding of possible psychiatric predictors of workaholism and particularly shed new insight into the reality of adult ADHD in work life.

Workaholics scored higher on all the psychiatric symptoms than non-workaholics.

And so those addicted to their work, 34%, 34% of work addicts, workaholics, met the criteria for anxiety. 33% for ADHD, 25% for OCD, 9% had depression.

This is two to four times higher compared to non-workaholics, let alone the general population.

The authors say individuals with ADHD may have to work harder and longer to compensate for their work behavior caused by neurological deficits. They may also be at risk of taking on projects and tasks impulsively, resulting in more work than they can realistically do within normal work hours.

Furthermore, it is hypothesized that these workaholic ADHD types push themselves in their job in order to disprove conceptions of them by others as being lazy or unintelligent.

And so people who are workaholics are usually young, contrary to the myth that older people like workaholics, actually the young people, are workaholics.

Single workers, people who are single, people with higher education, managers, self-employed, people who work in the private sector.

Women, women are much more likely to be workaholics than men.

This flies in the face of all the stereotypes because we have this Japanese actually stereotype of the salary men, the middle-aged men who goes to work and becomes workaholic.

But the actual picture is a young woman who is highly educated. That's the typical workaholic.

But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Any addiction can bring out these disorders.

If you're an alcoholic, you develop ADHD, you develop OCD.

Alcoholism involves alcoholic myopia, which is a form of grandiosity. Alcoholism reduces empathy.

So maybe all these effects are the results of workaholism. They are correlated with workaholism because they were brought on. They were engendered. They are comorbidities of workaholism because workaholism created them.

It's a hypothesis because work carries multiple psychosocial functions.

Work is an organizing principle. It imbues life with meaning and direction. It boosts self-esteem. It is a sublimatory channel.

We redirect aggression and we redirect the sex drive into work because work is socially acceptable. So we sublimate these drives.

And work is, of course, a great distraction with an A, a form of entertainment, an avoidance tactic.

In a science brief published in Psychological Science Agenda in April 2006, the title was Workaholism is Not Just Long Hours on the Job, the brief was authored by Melissa Clark. And the author wrote the term workaholism was coined in 1971 by minister and psychologist Wayne Oates, who described alcoholism as the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.

Since then, she says, research on workaholism has been plagued by disagreements surrounding how to define and how to measure the construct.

For example, workaholism has been defined as an addiction to work by Engle, Sorensen, Feldmann in 2007, Porter in 2006, Robinson in 2000. It has been defined as a pathology by Fassil in 1990. It has been defined as a behavior pattern that persists across multiple organizational settings by Scott Moore Misselli in 1997. And it had been described as a syndrome composed of a high drive, high work involvement and low work enjoyment by Aziz in 2006.

In an effort to reconcile these varied perspectives, writes the author, we identified key commonalities across these definitions, and we use these commonalities to form a comprehensive definition that includes the following components.

Feeling compelled to work because of internal pressures, having persistent thoughts about work when not working, and working beyond what is reasonably expected of the worker, as established by the requirements of the job or basic economic needs.

And this is despite the potential for negative consequences, health consequences, marital issues.

I refer you to Clark, Michel, Zhdanova, Puy and Baltes, most recent article.


Let us summarize.

We have difficulties reconceiving work.

Work has been with us since the inception of the human species, probably a million years, but only in the last 50 years, 5-0, which is nothing in historical terms and definitely nothing in psychological terms.

But only in the last 15 years, we had redefined and reframed our relationship with work. We had created a new sphere of life called leisure, which did not exist until the second half of the 20th century, except for the aristocracy.

Because we had only leisure, and we had incorporated it into a model of life, and this automatically created conflict between work and leisure. One of them became desirable, leisure, and one of them became undesirable, work.

So now, everything associated with work took on a negative tone. Workaholism could be conceived as a historical reframing of our attitudes to sex, sorry, to work.

In other words, an attitudinal issue, a lifestyle issue, not a psychological problem.

Another option is that workaholism is a reflection of mental health issues, psychiatric disorders, and also serves to amplify them, to magnify them, to increase them and enhance them.

It's a second possibility, a third possibility.

Some people with some types of mental health disorders, for example, ADHD or OCD, they use workaholism and perfectionism to cover up for their deficiencies, to disguise their mental health issues, to compensate and to present to the world a perfect, flawless facade, to fit in, to belong, to conform, to sublimate. That's a third possibility.

What do we know by now? We know that the last two are probably true.

Workaholism is associated with mental health illness issues, severe mental illness issues.

In other words, it can be easily construed as a sign or a symptom of mental health issues.

We also know that specific populations and cohorts present with workaholism when it is together with, when it's co-morbid with ADHD or OCD, so it's probably compensatory.

Regarding the psychosocial view that we are redefining our relationship with work, that's a work in progress. We are still not sure.

As automation increases, as globalization increases, with the new constraints of the pandemic, with the disintegration of institutions, including micro institutions such as the family, with a growing tidal wave wave of narcissism, dysregulation, promiscuity and other forms of social anomie, we are still not sure where workaholism fits in.

But it doesn't look good. It doesn't look good. It looks very, very much like sickness on the body of the organization and on the body of the individual who engages in it.

Thank you for listening.

Thank you, Sam, for your informative presentation.

Thank you.

You have discussed a quite serious topic because this topic is really, really serious in our life.

Indeed, yes. Especially in the West, by the way.

Yes, yes.

In the West. Maybe Japan. Maybe Japan also.

Anyone who is having any queries for Sam can ask him now. I think we are having some queries.

Don't be workaholics. What are you doing here?

Go home. Have fun.

Yes, yes, of course.

Please, always, please.

Thank you. It was really interesting.

Even if I felt a bit workaholic, I was a bit afraid. It was still very interesting.

Thank you.

I think we think that the current problem nowadays is a lack of culture of self-awareness. You know what I mean?

Not this general culture of how to manage my inner world, my psychology. I meet a psychologist only if I'm ill, if I have problems.

But we are totally lacking of tools, of instruments to manage ourselves in this sense.

And I think that's why we fall so easily in this kind of tricks, like becoming an alcoholic as a totally automatic, mechanical response to the people. Mechanism has a set of compensation.

Because we are totally not aware of what is going on within us in our psychology.

I think this is a very important point for prevention, for acting before this big, huge, freaking wave of narcissism and mental illness to talk about this little bit of overwhelm us.

And I think this is a very interesting point. I think this is the core point, a culture of self-awareness, to spread, to share a culture of self-awareness or of instruments to manage ourselves.

And I wanted to know what you think about it.

Well, the British Object Relations School in the 1960s and into the 1990s, actually, they were the first to suggest that what we call the self of the ego is relational. It's not a standalone unit.

And in this sense, our very concepts of individual and personality are probably wrong because they imply that we are atoms.

Of course, this attitude in philosophy reflects the atomization of society. It simply went along with society. It was bad ton to be individualistic, bad ton to be self-sufficient, bon ton to separate and individuate, if you wish.

So that's my first comment. Self-awareness, and I don't wish, of course, to minimize what you had said, but I think self-awareness is definitely only one of the requirements.

Because once you become self-aware, let's say, you may become aware of massive deficiencies, relational deficiencies. You may become aware of severe dissociation.

I mean, self-awareness is a two-edged sword. You may become of a self that you will reject wholeheartedly. You will not like the self that you discover.

Actually, I think a lot of the lack of self-awareness is a defensive mechanism against the disintegration of relationships, institutions, society at large.

And I'm not the first to say this. Emil Dukheim said it long before me when he referred to anomic societies.

Actually, one of his most famous books is On Suicide. He predicted, he predicted, and of course, Guy Debord, Society of the spectacle, numerous others.

Everyone had been warning, from Foucault, everyone had been warning, that we are going to lose ourselves because the self is not floating in space. It's heavily dependent for nourishment and boundaries.

I mean, take the concept of boundaries. What is your boundary? Your boundary is where you stop and the world begins.

But what if there is no world? You cannot have boundaries. You're unboundary, by definition, because you need to have something external against which you can bump, against which you can become, the process of becoming.

And so self-awareness is not the panacea because we really are in big trouble as far as the environment.

And so as long as we have this situation, which is anomic, I think the incidence and prevalence of mental health issues will increase inexorably and cannot be stopped.

Because one way to look at mental health issues of all kinds, with the exception of biochemical ones, like schizophrenia and so on, one way to look at mental health issues is as a form of escape. It's a form of escape.

We don't want to live in reality. We don't want this world. It sucks. We want out. We are opting out in droves. Billions of people are opting out, sometimes via substances, sometimes via retreating into a world of inner objects, giving up on external objects, deleting object relations and having object relations only internally, which is a great definition of psychosis, narcissism, etc.

So we had created a situation where the only skeleton we have is endoskeleton. We no longer have exoskeletons. We no longer have supports. And we have to rely on ourselves, but we cannot even become self-aware because it's risky, because self involves relationships and we don't have them.

So we are not self-aware. We have to rely, to summarize the answer, we have to rely on something that we are not allowed to be aware of.

It's a paradox. I mean, you have to rely on something. Your only source of support is yourself, but you're not allowed to be aware of yourself.

It could be too traumatizing. It's a conundrum. It's unsolvable. It's a huge problem.

Thanks, sir.

I agree.

I enjoy the discussion very much. Thank you. I would just like to provocably say that I would like to optimistically hope that it is solvable in a way through different aspects, because I'm an applied neuroscientist.

And if I want hope also for my children and for the next generation, I prefer to think that we can go from the automatization, which you mentioned, to self-definition and to better relationship with the other.

And I hope we're, I think we're all aware of this and working also to improve it.

But Sam, thank you so much for this very, very, very deep lecture.

I would just like to make one comment and I'll give space to the next speaker. The primal theme of psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience, the primal theme is the focus on the individual.

We must begin to apply psychology to society. We must begin to think in relational terms. We must begin to think in network terms. We must begin to consider people as nodes, nodes in Indra's net in a network. And we must begin to heal society.

And perhaps I would say we must begin to treat and heal society long before we try to heal and treat individuals.

The context, what I call the ego, ego system, like the ecosystem, the ego system, the context are critical.

If there is an extinct species, you want to revive the species.

The first thing you do, you create the appropriate environment. You put rocks, you put plants, you make sure the sunshine, only then you bring the species into the environment.

You are trying to heal and modify and cure and help individuals embedded in a sick, decaying, decomposing environment. It will never, ever work.

It's like watering the plant, but denying the plant sunshine. Finally, the plant will rot away.

We must begin a psychologist to stop thinking in terms of individuals. That was a huge mistake which started more or less at the end of the 19th century.

Huge mistake. And we must revert to relationships, community, society, frameworks, collectives, environment, ecosystem and ego system.

We must become environmentalists.

Thank you. Thank you. I regret that I have to say goodbye because I have clients. I apologize to the next speakers.

Thank you, Sam, for your hermitage presentation.

Thank you very much for having me and for tolerating me. See you all. Take care.

I request you to send your full-length article as well as your presentation in our mail.

Thank you.

Thank you kindly. I hope you recorded your video. So please send that to our mail.

Yes, I will send you the video. I believe I recorded it. Take care. Okay.

Thank you. So next I'm going to call our speaker, Dr.

Amanda Perry. Thank you. ###

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