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May 2017
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The evolution of the social concept of work

The concept of work and its position within the life of a person and his/her daily routines are affected by social thought about work, which has changed radically from what it once was.

Years ago, work was considered a despicable activity mainly given to slaves and prisoners, whilst supervision and coordinating roles were assigned to members of the upper classes. In some cultures, like the Spanish culture for example, the etymology of the word ‘trabajo’ (meaning job/work) comes from the Latin term ‘tripalium’, which is the name of an instrument of torture used on slaves that did not work efficiently. 

In 1700, work started to become a common activity carried out by people from all social classes and this gradually triggered a change in social imaginary thought: work was considered a dignified activity which was aimed at achieving a goal, for example, providing a good or creating a service.

The following transformations, observed in the most recent centuries, saw work become not just an activity which was necessary for survival, as it meant people could be financially independent, but also a means of affirmation in society which gave people status and which was an important ritual that marked the transition into adulthood.

Following these changes, people’s working identities started weighing on people’s personal identities and this has meant that we dedicate more and more time to work and, when pushed to the limit, this has caused negative impacts on our psycho-social lives and on our physical health. Social unrest, which is the result of the excessive amount of time given to work, has been described using the terms burnout, work related stress syndrome and above all, work dependant and work addiction.

Addiction to work: the causes of the pleasure of sacrifice

The historic change regarding how we think about work has, today, transformed work (especially in the Western world) into an essential instrument for integrating oneself into society and being appreciated on a social level, as well as a way to become financially independent. However, it has also meant that an ‘addiction to work’ is discussed more and more nowadays, which was once an idea representing a privileged man but which today, perhaps because of the ever increasing importance work has in society and the rights women now have, also concerns females.

Workaholism is a modern phenomenon and it can be described, as is often done with other mental tendencies, through a mythological image. An addiction to work can be compared to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, King of Corinth, who paid for his great greed for wealth when he was condemned by Jupiter for one of his misdeeds; he had to carry a huge stone to the top of mountain for eternity, as every time he got it up there, it feel back down. Just like other so called ‘new addictions’, like compulsive shopping or television addiction for example, addictions to work also represent a glorification of a common, daily activity. More precisely, an addiction to work can be described as an addiction without the use of substances and which is related to a lawful, common and extremely appreciated, on a social level, activity.

An extremely unique characteristic of an addiction work is that it occurs as a result of secondary rewards, or in other words, the indirect pleasure produced by a prolonged and repetitive working activity, which is a factor that allows us to understand why one is able to become addicted to an activity that rarely produces any direct or secondary rewards. In fact, work is not something which immediately gives you satisfaction, rather it requires you to make an effort to receive financial or any other type of gratification. This means there are two things to consider: first and foremost, not all work-addicts are masochists, and it appears that this self-punishment branch of the addiction is quite rare. The second implication of the main characteristic of addictions to work is that this form of addiction occurs in people in whom the so called ‘secondary process’ has developed, that is, the ability to give up any pleasures because of the future reward they are keeping in mind,. This is an aspect which induces the presence of a certain ‘psychological maturity’ in work-addicts which concerns managing needs and goals, an element which does not appear in other types of addictions.

A part of direct or immediate pleasure is often present however and it represents a factor which consolidates the attitude of complete dedication to work, which is often represented by a ‘passion’ for the activity itself, a sector or discipline. This often happens to professionals who spend their entire free time doing activities related to their profession, like reading or updating.

However, it is mainly an indirect pleasure which can turn an non-gratifying activity into a stabile habit and this can have effects both on the life of the person who perpetuates it and those around him/her.

Research into the psycho-dynamic profile of work addicts has meant that the main factors that feed (intertwining and combining themselves) an inclination towards non-stop work have been identified. As is the case for other types of behaviour, four main reasons for working can be seen regarding the tendency to work excessively, which, if pushed to the limits, allow us to design the profiles of different types of work-addicts:

  1. The competitive and aiming-for-power worker
    This is characterised by an inclination towards supremacy and self-achievement. In this case, stress factors, which can be result of over-working, are further charged by inclinations to behave in a conflicting manner, which can also lead to immoral acts of dominating others. 
  2. The hyper-ambitious and aiming-for-success worker
    The person’s behaviour is aimed at reaching ever higher working goals, like promotions or professional recognition. The inclination to succeed in work is characterised by a tendency to pursue excellence, responsibility and determination, elements which often originate from a more of less conscious tendency to adapt oneself to the identities of one’s parents, who would have been extremely dedicated to work and demanded that the children were perfect.
  3. The alone and aiming-for-affiliation worker
    This is quite different from the first two types and this category of work addicts for whom work represents a unique opportunity to experience social interactions, which have become irregular due to daily commitments. In this case, the hours spent at work, and also time spent doing over-time, represent a way to not be alone or live without a family.
  4. The aiming-for-avoidance worker
    This last reason to work is particular in that, by throwing him/herself into work, the worker can run away from the main problem in his/her life, which might be of an emotional, family or social nature.

The central importance of work when constructing one’s identity has meant that we also talk about insecure work addicts for whom work represents a way to get social approval in order to increase low self-esteem, perhaps because in the past parents only showed appreciation and love following success, or because the person has got used to receiving confirmation and recognition only when he/she does some good, for example succeeding at working. This is what happens, for example, to individuals who have parents who only praised them when they did well at school or work.

Finally, the search for the psychological causes which can give rise or feed the phenomenon of addictions to work have meant that we can also identify guilt workers who express their needs to self-punish through a tendency to let themselves take on massive amounts of work.

When considering this classification of types of work addicts, one must keep in mind the fact that there are often many reasons behind this behaviour and that work addicts tend to do this in order to satisfy internal needs. Consequently, motivations and needs intertwine themselves and this creates a knot, which must be undone if the addict wants to free him/herself from a chain which can make an addiction hinder his/her life. The idea that an addiction to work is a chain does mean that this type of behaviour toward professional working activities is experienced with discomfort however, because quite often the discomfort one assumes a work addict feels is actually placed on the people close to the addict or it affects the addict’s physical health. A work addict rarely acknowledges that he/she has a problem which needs to be sorted out.

The consequences of excessive work

As with other addictions which are carried out in different measures every day, there are qualitative indictors for addictions to work, as well as quantitative ones, which we can refer to in order to recognise the problem and differentiate it from a temporary period, an acute phase or a chronic situation.


  • Compulsion to work, shown by persistent and repeated abuse of work with habitual dedication of over 8 hours a day and often working at weekends or during holidays.
  • Tendency to never be away from work, not even when it is necessary and rarely even when ill.
  • Withdrawal crisis with feelings of emptiness, anxiety or irritation when away from work, for example, during holidays.
  • Fear of losing his/her job.
  • Reccurring worries about work.
  • Thoughts and constant daydreams about new ways to solve work problems or become successful at work. 
  • Unable to detach; he/she gives up hobbies and tends to spend weekends and free time doing work related activities and small jobs. This behaviour is often accompanied by contempt when seeing others have fun and dedicating themselves to leisure activities.
  • Nightmares about making mistakes or being unsuccessful at work.

When an addiction to work becomes chronic, we can also observe problems which develop in advanced stages.


  • Accentuated compulsion to work, with nocturnal or uninterrupted day time work crises.
  • Chronic relationship problems with colleagues, superiors or employees.
  • Multiple addictions, which sometimes involve the use of stimulants, excessive doses of coffee to reduce the feeling of tiredness so as to work for longer, or even using illegal substances (which is common in addictions to success).
  • Work related stress syndrome, which can escalate into more serious psychological and physical disorders (such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, cardiac problems).
  • Burnout or emotional exhaustion syndrome (especially in addictions to social professions).
  • Family problems, related to lack of communication, authoritarian attitudes and ignoring the continual requests to be around more. After years of a work addiction, these problems can also be the causes of separation and divorce.
  • Social isolation.

Periods in life when one has to give more time to work do not necessarily mean one is addicted to work, nor does the simple pleasure felt when working or being ambitious for success, as long as these things are felt by themselves. What should be considered as an addiction to work is the exclusivity of work, both in real life and in one’s mind.

What psychologically distinguishes a workaholic is the lack of desire to find moments to stop working, the lack of signs of suffering when making sacrifices for work and the consequential presence of the idea of ‘living to work’ which, for one or more reasons, has replaced the idea of ‘working to live’ in the addict’s mind.

In cases of addictions to work, what is missing is the simple desire to do something which, for the time being, is not possible because of working commitments.

Progression of the symptoms

The behaviour described above as acute symptoms of work addiction provide us with the possibility to draw a picture of the typical progression of this phenomenon.

Initially, an addiction to work begins as a habit of dedicating more and more hours to work. In the second symptomatic phase, people generally tend to show signs of burnout or so called ‘work related stress syndrome’, a clinical situation which can cause various psychological and physical symptoms, like anxiety, memory lapses, fatigue, digestive problems, headaches, cardiac problems, dietary imbalances and more. However, the sufferer may not listen to the first signs of an addiction and may attribute them to physical problems or inherited problems. This situation can then get worse and end in a heart attack and cause serious and chronic health problems. 

A medical phenomenon about work addiction has been observed in Japan and it goes by the name ‘Karoshi’ and it is related to work stress. It concerns the tendency many people have, who are subject to excessive or harmful working conditions, to develop cerebrovascular or serious cardiac diseases. Some people have even died unexpectedly because of ischemic or infarction problems.

Japanese medicine recognised excess work as the fundamental cause of stress which brought on and aggravated the abovementioned disorders.

The lack of hours of sleep needed for psycho-physical well-being seems to be a factor which is closely related to excess work and which triggers profound changes in the brain chemistry and functioning of the neurological regulation of all vital functions, which is similar to what happens when one takes drugs or other substances which lower the healthy need to sleep, just so one can finish work.

The right place for work

An addiction work is still an underestimated phenomenon and is scarcely recognised in the field of psychological disorders, therefore it is usually diagnosed when it is associated with other psychical or physical problems, which in turn means that a diagnosis is made in the advanced phases, perhaps following a heart attack or other serious illnesses for which a complete rest from work has been prescribed. Since the first signs of the problem are often related to the family, early detection could start in the family/a relationship in which a work addiction can play a decisively negative role.

Addressing this type of problem means reorganising time and areas dedicated to one’s working life and rediscovering other activities, which are often less profitable in terms of money, but more rewarding in other terms, through which it is possible to start finding new satisfactions and create new goals with the same amount of creativity the addict used for his/her work..

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