The term “workaholism” was introduced in 1971 to describe the uncontrollable need to work incessantly, and it has the same meaning today.
Contrary to popular belief, though, workaholism isn’t so much about the actual hours that people work but more about how people experience work–including the physical and psychological consequences it has on them. An interesting peculiarity of workaholism is its ability to simultaneously boost employee engagement, and impair health and well-being. In other words, workaholics are more likely to love their jobs and find meaning at work, but at the cost of sacrificing physical and personal well-being.
More importantly, psychological research suggests there’s a critical distinction between overworking because you love your job, and doing so because things got out of control. While the former leads to higher levels of performance, productivity, and motivation, the latter causes stress, alienation, and burnout. Meaning and purpose, it seems, make the difference between productive and counterproductive workaholism, rather than the actual number of hours you work.
It’s understandable then, that a growing number of employers expect their employees to behave like spiritual workaholics. They show high levels of focus and intensity at work, but only because they experience a strong psychological and existential connection with their careers.
Careers have been elevated to a level of meaning, fulfillment, and creative self-expression, once reserved only to religion, art, and philosophy (and more recently, consumerism) to many people, particularly the most skilled and educated portion of the workforce. The notion of finding yourself at work, or experiencing a higher sense of calling through your job, is a very postmodern idea.
As I argue in my recent book, Why So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders, one of the main reasons for the high prevalence of narcissistic bosses is that they manage to tap into followers’ need for meaning, enticing them to be part of something grandiose, and seducing them with their charismatic and megalomaniac visions.
The recent emphasis on storytelling, meaningful mission statements, and emotional connectedness as key ingredients of leadership potential assumes that followers are hungry for meaning. In the past, we had bosses who told employees what to do. Today’s expectation is that leaders will connect with their followers in almost religious ways in order to appeal to their core values and inspire them to give it all for a truly meaningful and relevant cause. Companies yearn for an ideal employee who is drunk on meaning, possessed by work, and spiritually immersed in their work persona, which has come to take over most if not all other parts of their identity. “I am a Googler” is as powerful a statement in the realm of identity claims as “I am a Christian,” “American,” or “a ManU fan.”
Spiritual workaholics provide enormous benefits to society, as there are clear economic and social benefits to having people in jobs that they love and therefore perform better. When Karl Marx presented his dystopian forecast of capitalism as a vehicle of alienation in which workers would clock in and out until they burn out or drop dead, he underestimated the human capacity for finding meaning at work (or capitalism’s ability to create it).
But there’s also a downside to this dependence on meaning and career spirituality. Are we able to create meaningful jobs and careers for everyone? Is everyone entitled to a higher sense of purpose and meaning at work? Is it feasible for all employees to have access to self-actualizing and inherently exciting careers? If not, what happens when people experience a reality check, and how can we cope with the disappointment of having to go to work because we need to make ends meet, pay the bills, and go on with our lives? More importantly, how can organizations cater to those employees who are not interested in having a deeper connection with work, but are simply in it in a transactional and economic sense? Will the future meaning of “inclusive” include the ability to build a company culture that embraces not just those who experience a cult-like connection with it, but also those who are emotionally and intellectually detached from it?
There’s no doubt we should celebrate the substantial degree of progress we have made on improving overall working conditions over the past century. Even the poorest regions of the world are catching up quickly when it comes to improving the average employee’s experience.
At the same time, we wouldn’t be working as long and as hard, to earn relatively less and be relatively less productive, if we didn’t assign such high status to the idea of being fully invested in our work and careers. Recent calls to shorten the typical working week must first address the negative stigma many cultures–especially high-performing ones–attach to those who work to live rather than live to work.