Addicted to work: the new opiate of the masses

From stress and burnout, to craving and withdrawal symptoms: the unspoken consequences of the 9-to-5 grind, always-on work culture has dampened emotional happiness, frayed domestic and social relations, and even brought on sickness: Prof. Marylin Clark from the University of Malta wants to map this silent disease

File photo
File photo

“Craving, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, conflicts and health problems” – the diagnosis of the five-day working week and the impossibility of disconnecting ourselves from work pressures has never been as crude.

It is an ominous verdict. A culture of hard work that crowned the 20th century ethic of professionalisation and unionisation, might be at the cusp of yet another revolution: automation. The case for the four-day week, or Universal Basic Income, has never been stronger. Work-life balance, remote working, and disconnecting from the smartphone boss – all are part of a discourse of rights, not mere concessions.

But Prof. Marylin Clark, who in the past has led studies on the effects of psychological interference with journalists, says the unspoken crisis of work addiction is serious enough to warrant the condition as being a 21st century public health challenge. The Maltese famously celebrated work as the “balm of the body” – but this elixir seems to have turned into an opiate.

Together with collaborators from over 60 countries all over the world, the University of Malta is conducting the largest global study on work addiction to date. The project involves world-leading experts in work addiction, including esteemed and globally recognized addiction researchers, clinical psychologists, and work and organization psychologists, as well as a team of over 100 researchers worldwide.

“Little information about work addiction is still available to the general public, and many people who struggle with it do not know that they may seek help,” Prof. Clark says, hoping that this will be an important and interesting topic for a wider public. “It deserves more attention and awareness.”

The considerable progress in researching work addiction in recent years today safely places work addiction one of those behavioural addictions whose symptoms are like substance addictions – such as craving, withdrawal, tolerance, mood modification, or conflicts and health problems.

Prof. Clark says two main factors make it one of the most significant challenges in organisational psychology and public health in the 21st century. “Firstly, it is more prevalent than most other addictive behaviours. Depending on the country, about 6 to 20% of workers could be affected, and such differences in prevalence are likely, to some extent, related to macro-level factors such as labour market regulations, stability of employment, and social care systems.”

The second factor is the typical high workload, and chronic and substantial occupational stress, and burnout. But it is not simply an addiction ‘of work’ – the effects are carried outside. “It considerably affects family dysfunction and generally problematic social functioning. On top of that, it tends to be related to decreased productivity. In other words, it has sizeable negative consequences for the individuals affected, people close to them, and recipients of their work.”

What’s more shocking is that this research into the detrimental effects of burnout and work addiction is that its high prevalence, introduces it as one of the components of the global burden of disease. In other words, the dark world of work is likely to cause substantial harm on a population level, affecting medical and social care systems.

The global study tracking the effects of work addiction in fact will provide data on the enormous costs of chronic stress in and outside work environments. “We want to understand which factors contribute most to work addiction, work-related depression, and burnout to develop best practices for their prevention and treatment,” Prof. Clark says.

The results will be the scientific basis for recommendations for governments on working conditions, as well as organizations’ policies for a work climate that minimises the risk of addiction. “As such, it may contribute to a significant reduction in human suffering worldwide and a notable improvement in productivity for organizations, institutions, and country-level economics,” Prof. Clark adds.

The public is now being invited to fill out a survey, with all participants obtaining detailed feedback on their psychosocial functioning at work, including risks of work addiction, work-related depression, and burnout, and potential organizational and individual risk factors contributing to their functioning at work. Prof. Clark hopes the date will give both the public and organisations an eye-opener into the profound effects that constant work dedication, and addiction, is having on people’s lives. “It may help identify personal and organizational strengths and weaknesses and improve job performance and well-being in and outside the work environment,” Prof. Clark says.

The survey for Maltese people has two language versions: