A few years before buying Twitter, Elon Musk had already warned that working for him (like Tesla employees) was not heaven. There were better places, but he added: “Nobody changes the world by working 40 hours a week.” According to Musk, when you love what you do, you’re not working. Ergo, you can do it without rest, all hours of the day and even without charging. This mixture of making yourself believe privileged (for loving what you do) and chosen (for changing the world) is a death trap for those who need external validation. The new Stakhanovism has a spiritual dimension and also another of performance and spectacle, much less dangerous, because it is only a staging.
A toxic corporate culture is a good breeding ground for workaholics, but it’s not enough. “The basic idea is that the workaholic It is the one who works many more hours than expected, but the addiction to work is more complex, and sometimes the difference is made by the one who places the label of addict on the other”, explains Michael P. Leiter, psychologist expert in labor relations and professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Leiter, who has studied the issue for more than 30 years, says that peers can tag as workaholic (contraction in English for work and alcoholic) to a colleague who works so many hours that he ends up putting them in a bad light with the boss. “can someone call workaholic to his partner because instead of dedicating time to the house and the children, he prefers to work piecework. There are people who label themselves as workaholics to boast —from false humility— of how essential they are in their company”, says Leiter via email.
Curiously, the hours that must be worked to classify as an addict have been growing sharply in recent decades. In the first definition of 1971, working more than 50 hours a week implied a high risk of addiction. In subsequent revisions, the researchers recognized that it was very easy to exceed that threshold in today’s labor market, so in the new descriptions of the concept they refrained from delimiting a specific number of hours. They rated the workaholics as “those who invest more time and energy in work than is required of them” (according to 1980 research).
In modern descriptions, the attitude towards work rules over time. Contemporary definitions speak of an obsessive pattern of high vital investment in work, with long working hours beyond any expectation.
Professor Leiter confirms that there is no number of hours that marks a risk threshold. “Everything depends on the context, which can be highly variable. For example, a young person with few family responsibilities may spend many hours learning a new profession and consolidating her career. Someone starting a new business, for example a restaurant has to work long hours to get established. But if someone with a guaranteed professional future and well-established working hours continues to work long hours, then you have to ask yourself what the real motivation is, ”he reasons.
17 years without taking a vacation
Maria Mendez lives in New York. She works as a travel agent, in charge of tourism and corporate entertainment. For years, her mission was to organize entertainment for the top executives of BBVA and Banco Santander. She was also in charge of the logistics of Beyoncé’s tours. She started working at the age of 23, and spent 17 without taking vacations.
Along the way she had four daughters who have been cared for by her mother and her husband. Her maternity leave lasted three days. She “She slept with her mobile in bed. She worked 24 hours every day. When she traveled, I didn’t leave the hotel room, I stayed in front of the computer, I don’t know the world and I’ve been everywhere, ”she says on the phone with a broken voice while walking on a treadmill in a gym in Manhattan. In those years of exhausting work, she weighed 87 kilos, which she has now managed to stabilize at 60. “I didn’t buy clothes, I had three sweaters and I rotated them throughout the week,” she recalls.
Maria was the example from the office: “My boss said that everyone had to do what I did: arrive first, leave last, and give my clients my personal phone number.”
A four-day course on emotional management helped her identify her excuses for being hooked on work, which in her case was thinking that she was not going to be able to pay the bills. Later, when her salary was raised, she told herself that if she didn’t keep up that rate, she wouldn’t be able to provide her family with a good standard of living. And she ended up making up that she was “very committed to her clients.”
In 2019 he took a vacation for the first time. She went on a trip with her family and felt “guilty.” María, she believes that today she is another person. “I have learned to say no, I have regained control over my life. The first thing I do in the morning is a list of what I am not going to do… Up to 30 things can go in there in a single day”.
In November 2019, he created the Vacation is a Human Right Foundation (vacations are a human right), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping single mothers take vacations: “With our funds we will pay the bills for that month off ”. Méndez is also one of the organizers of the First Ibero-American Congress against burnout (as professional burnout syndrome or, more literally, burnout syndrome is called), which will be held this summer in the Dominican Republic to gut one of the most frequent consequences of addiction to work: exhaustion and cynicism.
The addict’s brain
What happens in the brain of a workaholic? Professor Nestor Braidot, an expert in neuroscience applied to organizational management, explains it: “When the brain’s reward system is activated, for example, in the case of professionals and businessmen who collect one success after another, it acts in a similar way (although not identical) to common drugs. If it is a person who “lives in the company” to please his superiors, in the long run he may suffer from the syndrome of burnoutwhich is associated with a brain practically without energy, exhausted”, he explains.
Various studies agree that about 8% of the global workforce is addicted to work. A large Norwegian prevalence study of workaholism found no differences between men and women, social class, single or married, hired and self-employed workers. The only singularity that they reported was between the veteran professionals and the younger ones: the latter had a risky behavior that brought them dangerously close to work addiction.
For Braidot, behind addiction to work there may be a wide variety of causes. “There is passion in successful entrepreneurs and politicians, there is unhappiness in those who use work as an escape route to avoid other emotions, in others there is pathological perfectionism. There may also be psychological factors: one of my clients, the son of the owner of a candy corporation, became a workaholic to earn the respect of an authoritarian father,” he says.
One of the ways to know if we are workaholics is to apply the Bergen Work Addiction Scale developed in 2014 by researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway.
On this scale, you can rate your behavior from 1 to 5, where 1 is never and 5 is always. If at least four of the answers are “always” or “frequently”, it may be that the workaholic be you
- You think about how to take more time from other activities to be able to work.
- You spend more time working than you initially anticipated.
- With work you manage to relieve feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness or depression.
- Other people tell you that you work too much, but you never listen.
- You get stressed and cranky when you are banned from working.
- You de-prioritize your hobbiesleisure activities or sports for your work.
- Working a lot has negatively affected your health.
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