Workaholism and Mental Health

Like a wind up toy.

Like a wind up toy.

The topic of mental health and work is no stranger to this site as I’ve discussed it a few times either personally or more generally. A particular phenomenon within work itself however, workaholism, hasn’t really been discussed (surprisingly) and certainly not in any detail when it comes to its correspondence to various mental health issues.

I’ve talked about my own struggles with depression before but also worth mentioning is that I’m autistic, I struggle with social anxiety (and anxiety more generally), OCD traits and ADHD. All of these “disorders” intersect in various ways that make my job(s) a lot tougher than they might be otherwise.

Self-esteem issues often make me question whether I have the “right” (whatever that means) to influence other people’s opinions and be seen as a  positive value in the world. I have these issues not only because of my general problems with depression and anxiety but also because of a history of abuse that has been hard to process.

ADHD and autism (aspergers specifically) both impact my ability to parse exactly what’s going on at work sometimes. At times I’ve had issues understanding what other people mean, taking them too literally or doing something completely different from what was asked of me. This is partly due to issues of anxiety and fears of coming off as intellectually inferior for not understanding. I’ve talked about that specific issue before when I mentioned my boss yelling at me for not refilling the cups when I originally didn’t understand and got nervous about asking for clarification over and over.

That sort of process is very difficult for me because it involves multiple parts. It involves the other person being patient, my own communication skills (which can be lacking at times) and the interpretations between both of us. Sometimes people take my lack of attention as a sign of disrespect or that I’m not really listening. It’s actually more so that I don’t have a great attention span for listening to people and it often takes repeated experiences to learn effectively.

In addition, I often learn better when people show me rather than just tell me. I’m more of a visual learner than someone who can get thing through mentally modeling what other people are saying to me. Neither method (or other various methods) are necessarily “good” or “bad” but the visual one works better for me because it’s easier to process.

This also impacts my relationships with customers becomes at times I become overwhelmed by all of the phenomena I have to process in order to do my job. And often when this happens I don’t even notice it until the customer corrects me on what they actually wanted instead of what I was so sure they wanted.

None of these things make me want to work harder but their effect in the end is that I have to work harder if I want to be seen working just as hard as everyone else. So even though I hate my current job and dislike giving it any real effort I am often forced to based on the way my brain operates.

Andrew Smart is a neuroscientist who has researched a lot about the brain and its effects on work and found an interesting study that I took the time to read on mental illness and workaholism (PDF version here). I found the link through an interesting article by Smart on workaholism and philosophy.

Smart sees a strong link between having our mental health worsened, work and the prevalence of workaholism in a given population. They use the essay in question as a jumping point to equate philosophy with an opportunity for idleness and thus a way to fight against workaholism:

Bertrand Russell promoted the pursuit of so-called “useless” knowledge as a revolt against the utilitarian conception of knowledge that has plagued Western society since the Middle Ages.

 

As Russell says in his classic essay on useless knowledge:

“When conscious activity is wholly concentrated on some one definite purpose, the ultimate result, for most people, is lack of balance accompanied by some form of nervous disorder.” Russell arrived at this conclusion philosophically, while the Norwegian researchers used modern technology, statistics and empirical science to discover the same thing.

Workaholism is the most dangerous of delusions because it assumes that anxiety, depression or impulsivity can be cured through work. It is a vicious and negative feedback loop just like any addiction. Russell, in typical fashion, surmised the remedy: “A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than in action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity amid misfortune and peace of mind among worries.”

This essay got me to think about the way that people also ask folks to work through grief. Even that phrase I just unconsciously used “work through” presumes some sort of process (usually seen as linear) that starts with an individual being in grief and then somehow extricating themselves from the grief.

But grief can come out in many complex and different ways and that doesn’t always mean there’s something to “work through”. We all have our own ways of dealing with the loss of loved ones, friends, pets, beloved celebrities or even passions and places we once deeply identified as parts of ourselves.

Folks often try to tell us (and usually with good intentions) that they should focus on a “passion project” or we should “bury ourselves” in work to get our mind from it. But this way of dealing with grief can make others turn from passionate to obsessive (wherein the lines are fuzzy anyways) and destroy their abilities to do much else.

The pain of loss can make us over and under commit to those things we want to continue to make life seem more normal. It makes us try to compensate for the hole in our hearts that we feel until we can process (or don’t) our grief. Sometimes the process is never really over and this is the more likely case than somehow overcoming it by singularly focusing on a project that means a lot to you.

It’s especially risky to dedicate so much of your time to those things if you already have a background history of mental illness including depression and anxiety. Both of these things are (unsurprisingly) according to Smart and the study he references co-occurring often with workaholism. And these projects I’m discussing can have to do with the friend themselves and not you which eventually becomes self-defeating. It’s helpful to remember that your friend (pending on your beliefs I suppose) likely isn’t judging you if you don’t manage to finish your projects related to them.

Instead, if you’re going to dedicate a project to your deceased loved one or whomever it is, it’s a good idea to also keep yourself and your own mental health in check. Remember, they’re dead and you would probably prefer not to be so perhaps it would be a good idea if you don’t develop workaholism out of all of this.

As far as Smart and Russell go, I think that there is certainly more benefit to thought than action that isn’t properly given its due in society because of our biases towards working hard. That said even for me, Mr. Abolish Work (not my legal name if you’re curious), it can be tricky to keep myself centered and focused on taking care of myself.

Lately I’ve been watching this show called Community and binging each season in a groupings of episodes at a time. It’s a very fun and rewarding experience because it’s such a good show. But today I (obviously) couldn’t convince myself it was enough and wanted to make sure I wrote something new for this site as well.

Going back to Smart and the study he references:

Furthermore, it is known that workaholism (in some instances) develops as an attempt to reduce uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and depression. Working hard is praised and honoured in modern society, and thus serves as a legitimate behavior for individuals to combat or alleviate negative feelings – and to feel better about themselves and raise their self-esteem.

The example with grief is by no means an isolated case in this work-dominated society we live in. Many things are said to be “curable” by the virtues of hard work. Depressed? Try re-focusing on your work! Anxious? Think about work more!

Whatever your ailment might be, work is the answer and the cure no matter the fact that things like meditating, contemplation, relaxation and slacking on those past stressful activities could very well be good for you.

People’s reasoning for why we should devalue or otherwise underestimate the positive effects of idleness because it fights against everything we are taught in society from an early age.

As Smart writes:

Acknowledging that work is medically, socially and emotionally harmful requires you to reject the belief in the legitimacy of working hard. This can be especially difficult as this belief is one of the foundational beliefs of modern culture. We are taught to believe in working hard as soon as we enter formal schooling, if not before. We are soon too taught to reject idleness and useless contemplation to pursue rote mastery of facts and rules in order to pass arbitrary standardized tests. This continues into work life.

And it continues until we’ll die, if we don’t do everything in our power to resist it.

Maybe philosophy isn’t the way to do that, but Smart and Russell are probably on to something for what it’s worth.


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