Hard work is admired in most societies and being unemployed is a source of shame. This mindset arose in agricultural societies and became extreme after the Industrial Revolution. Addiction to work seems normal in the U.S. but is not healthy.
What Is Addiction to Work?
A workaholic is someone who prefers to work most of the time at the expense of personal relationships and leisure pursuits. Addiction to work interferes with family relationships. A parent who misses important family events and is rarely at home fosters alienation, and rebellion, in children. Consequently, their family lives can be troubled and tempestuous.
Working most of the time is not a normal human state. Like other predatory species, we typically spend a lot of time resting, unlike social insects or herbivores. Men in hunter-gatherer societies typically worked a five-hour day whereas women worked for longer at gathering food and did more childcare. When, and why did our species become obsessed with working hard?
How Did the Work Obsession Arise?
The first people to work from dawn to dusk were farmers. This was particularly true of crunch time such as planting and harvesting when getting the job done on time had real consequences in terms of diet and survival. Even today, farmers are notorious for working long hours and taking very little time off even though they will not starve.
Mere survival cannot explain the phenomenon of the obsessively hard-working farmer. Social competition is another plausible explanation. Among Europe's earliest farmers, there was intense competition over good land (1). Successful farmers who controlled the best land were more attractive to potential mates who moved from lower-quality soil to raise their children.
Hard Work and Social Mobility
When modern workers put in long hours, they are largely motivated by considerations of social mobility. People who work longer hours in corporations are more likely to succeed in terms of promotions and salary. This phenomenon of working “to get ahead” is fairly recent. In most monarchies, status was either hereditary or gifted by royalty and had little to do with hard work.
The connection between hard work and increasing social status emerged during the 18th century during a period before the Industrial Revolution known as “the Industrious Revolution” (2). At this time small English cloth manufacturers worked in their own homes and labored late using candlelight to complete their orders. In this way, they accumulated wealth and climbed the social ladder, something that had not been possible in earlier times. They expressed their affluence in fine furniture, expensive crockery, and fancy window curtains.
Since that time, hard work has been socially endorsed. In countries where social mobility is possible, residents may look up to workaholics rather than see them as people leading dysfunctional lives. This attitude to work is summed up in the phrase, “The devil finds work for idle hands.”
Workaholics may achieve career success but they take their eyes off the ball when it comes to raising happy children. It is estimated that as much as one person in five is a workaholic in developed countries. At the other extreme are many people who cannot find work, are chronically lazy, find their jobs boring, or do the minimum needed to get paid.
What Workaholics Lose
Children may forgive some shortcomings of parents but being ignored is psychologically crushing and engenders lifelong unhappiness, anxiety, insecurity, and hatred. Neglectful parents do not have the luxury of going back and retrieving their mistakes. The relationship damage has already been done and generally does not get repaired.
This personal tragedy animates the Arthur Miller play, Long Day's Journey into Night, and is the source of a great deal of resentment of real-life parents whose dedication to work eats into their devotion to children, family, and friends.
Can Work Addiction Be Controlled?
We live in a world where work addiction is often considered not just normal but a desirable trait in a future employee. Yet, that approach to a job is being reconsidered under the rubrics of work-life balance and mental health.
Work addiction is clearly the product of a particular economic regime. It is more common in societies after the Industrial Revolution than before for instance. Not everyone is equally likely to succumb.
Workaholics may have obsessive tendencies but most would not be categorized as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. They are also prone to depression and many people work long hours because it elevates their mood, staving off depressive tendencies.
Despite individual propensities for developing work addiction, there is some evidence that self-help groups and cognitive behavioral therapies can be effective in reducing the obsessive need to work long hours.
1 Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale, C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., et al. (2012). Community differentiation and kinship among Europe's first farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(24), 9326-9330. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113710100
2 de Vries, J. (2008). The Industrial Revolution: Consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present. New York: Cambridge University Press.