The personal and cultural factors in work addiction

Recently this blog wrote about an article on the news website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation concerning burnout. One of the people interviewed for the article was Sally McGrath, who responded to a series of questions put to her to clarify some of the workplace mental health issues raised.

SAWB: Did your three burnout experiences happen at the same workplace?

SM: Yes – this was a result of me taking on too much, and being “capable” is something that I believe can work both for and against a person. In my case (and many I see) always saying yes and being delegated work is where the burnout begins, you don’t want to be seen as not coping or capable. You also want to be seen as the “next in line for promotion” and saying no can work against you. 

SAWB: Did you bring these experiences to the attention of your line manager or employer? If so, what advice did they offer? What actions did they take to prevent a recurrence?

SM: In my case – I was the manager. So to answer your question – No. I did, however, discuss the issues with my business partner at the time. The problem was very much associated with my behaviour and attitudes towards work and a “work hard and till you drop” ethic and mindset. 

SAWB: Were your experiences sufficient to cause you to lodge a workers’ compensation claim? 

SM: No, as I was self-employed. Ultimately I chose to leave.  I have seen situations like this in workplaces though.

SAWB: Given that work addiction and workaholism have no generally accepted medical definition, have you been diagnosed with a mental health disorder? 

SM: Yes, I also am of the opinion that work addiction is a learned behaviour, and as children, we observe the habits and experiences of adults around us that define and create our habits and behaviours. Also, generations before us are a “work hard to be successful attitude. I do believe you need to work diligently, to the point of relentless exhaustion[?] – NO. 

SAWB: Have you cured yourself of this addiction?

SM: I do not believe that you are ever cured, if you get complacent it is very easy to slip into previous habits and behaviours. I call it a work in progress and a recovering work addict. My work now is a powerful reminder. I choose the times I need to “lean in” when the workload is heavier and schedule myself time out and off regularly, that way when it is intense, I have the energy to give. 

SAWB: What is your current work experience, time management, etc?

SM: My work now is a powerful reminder. I choose the times I need to “lean in” when the workload is heavier and schedule myself time out and off regularly, that way when it is intense, I have the energy to give. Overall there are (sadly) still many workplaces that I would consider toxic. Whilst Covid has brought attention to burnout and mental health in the workplace, we are far from an improvement. There is A LOT of work to do by both employer and employee, both are equally as responsible.

McGrath mentions the habit of “always saying yes”. Occupational health and safety (OHS) principles and practices strongly encourage workers to refuse to undertake any tasks that could be potentially hazardous to themselves and others. Some organisations have formalised this in a “stop work authority”. McGrath illustrates how difficult it is for workers to identify psychosocial hazards, especially if one is in an executive or leadership position, and those hazards are ones that generate rewards.

This is a common misapplication of leadership where the reality, one’s behaviour, generates mental and physical risks. That leadership may be compatible with and encouraged by the company, but it is unsafe and unhealthy, requiring individuals to sacrifice their own psychological health and safety and that of their partners and children. This leadership and corporate aims are created by and maintained by a flawed socioeconomic ideology of neoliberalism which rewards short-term financial gain over the longer-term benefits of mental and physical health and solid social relationships with family. Almost every time an executive resigns to “spend more time with their family” (at least those who are not sent to jail for Ponzi schemes and fraud) offers an example of people who have been sucked into the neoliberal maelstrom, have allowed themselves to be exploited and, perhaps even worse, neglected their families.

McGrath describes this as

“my behaviour and attitudes towards work and a “work hard and till you drop” ethic and mindset.”

Neoliberalism has existed in Australia and dominated politics and business for over 40 years. Many workers have experienced nothing but neoliberal values and structures in their work. These values persist for a long time and are usually only ever challenged by a socioeconomic or political crisis. This persistence is reflected in McGrath’s comments about work addiction being a learned behaviour. It is possible to unlearn unhealthy and unsafe behaviours and learn new ones. OHS can help in this by providing a legislative framework of harm prevention, harm reduction and positive duties.

On the matter of workers’ compensation, McGrath says that this was not considered because she was self-employed. This is a common response, but one that is not always are clear as the self-employed status would seem. A self-employed person could still be considered a worker for the purposes of workers’ compensation. It is not an automatic ineligibility, and legal advice on this topic should be sought.

The focus on individual empowerment has a role to play in the reduction of harm from psychosocial hazards at work. Many people respond well to the coping strategies and resilience training proposed by many in the wellness industry. However, these strategies offer dubious evidence on the prevention of psychosocial harm or the transformation of workplace cultures into workplaces where psychosocial harm is not possible. The legislative reforms in this area, especially in Australia, are acknowledgements that the existing well-being strategies have failed to meet the OHS obligations for employers to provide safe and healthy work environments by designing health and safety into the company systems and by addressing the harm at the source. The persistent rate of work-related suicides indicates that existing suicide prevention strategies have not achieved the aims of mental health organisations or governments.

This institutional and structural approach to harm prevention is touched on by McGrath when she mentions responsibilities but more work is needed to use the influence of individual well-being approaches to affect real change at higher level, design stages of business management, to address the source of stress, disrespect and exploitation.

Kevin Jones

Thanks, Sally, for your prompt cooperation.

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