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Burnout vs. Overwork vs. Workaholism

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Burnout, overwork, and workaholism are important workplace issues associated with long work hours.

Burnout, overwork, and workaholism are important workplace issues associated with long work hours.

Working long hours is nothing new. From the start of the industrial revolution up to the time before the Great Depression, people were already used to devoting most hours of their lives to productivity. But at various points of the mid-to-late 20th century, workers fought back, organized themselves, and demanded better working conditions—particularly fighting for fewer and fewer work hours. Long story short, the eight-hour workday became not just a norm but a statute for most, if not every country around the world.

When the 2000s came rolling in, though, the eight-hour workday’s essence has seen itself slowly being chipped away. Companies, most notably in the United States and China—the two largest economies—are bringing back long work hours, leading workers to cave in to burnout, overwork, and workaholism. These three workplace conditions are each a significant issue on their own that has been studied extensively. Let’s run through each of them below.

What Is Burnout?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Encyclopedia of Occupational Health & Safety describes burnout as “a type of prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job.” And has been “conceptualized as an individual stress experience embedded in a context of complex social relationships.” Additionally, burnout is conceptualized in three components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion;
  2. Depersonalization; and
  3. Reduced personal accomplishment.

The World Health Organization, under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), lists burnout as an occupational phenomenon but not as a medical condition. Similar to the three components described by the ILO, the ICD characterizes burnout by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism; and
  3. Reduced professional efficiency.

Both definitions or descriptions of burnout seem to coincide, especially in terms of the three markers.

What Is Overwork?

Overwork is sometimes mistaken for burnout but is a completely different phenomenon. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines overwork as “to cause someone to work so much,” while the Free Dictionary says that it can also be related to the act of working beyond one’s strength or capacity. There isn’t a standard line to draw between what’s beyond one’s capacity and what’s not beyond one’s capacity, but some draw the line at working 55 hours or more per week.

Overwork is to be differentiated from karoshi or “death from overwork.” Karoshi is a term that has been used since the 1970s and received a lot of attention in 2017 when a Japanese woman died from overwork after working 159 hours of overtime. The Japanese government has since zeroed in on the issue, enacting a law in June 2018 called the “Work Style Reform Law,” which limits overtime work to only 45 hours a month or 360 overtime hours a year.

Since then, the number of work-related suicides in Japan has taken a slight dip, from 2,018 deaths in 2018 to 1,949 in 2019 and 1,918 deaths in 2020—all of which are still concerning, but a modest improvement from the 2,689 deaths in 2011 and still being in the 2,000s annually after that.

What Is Workaholism?

What does it really mean to be a workaholic? A work addiction scale was formulated by researchers from the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen, identifying seven (7) criteria to assess whether or not a person had work addiction:

  1. Thinking how you can free up more time to do work;
  2. Actually spending more time working than you initially intended;
  3. Working in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness or depression;
  4. Not listening to others when they tell you to cut down on work;
  5. Being stressed out when you’re prevented from working;
  6. Deprioritizing hobbies, leisure, and/or exercise due to work; and
  7. Working so much that it has adversely affected your health.

These seven criteria sound a lot like the three dimensions or components of burnout but expanded in a more practical and visible way. These seven symptoms of workaholism seem to manifest externally as opposed to the symptoms of burnout which are more inward.

To me, workaholism is more concerning than either burnout or overwork, for the reason that it causes more positivity to the person than manifesting negative effects (at least directly). Like many addictions, a work addiction causes the addict to want to do more of it, perhaps because of the short-lived pleasure or rewards derived from it. And viewed another way, perhaps being a workaholic is what causes a person to become burned out or overworked.

The entire process may be pleasurable and enjoyable at first, but there comes an eventuality that it all becomes exhausting and frustrating that no pleasure or enjoyment can be generated by working too much. And at that point, the person realizes that “it’s just not worth it.” All that working hard and “providing,” striving to be as productive as possible, came at the cost of one’s personal health and well-being.

Focusing too much of our lives around working and productivity can cause you to be caught in a cycle of feeling addicted to work, overworked, and finally, burnt out.

Focusing too much of our lives around working and productivity can cause you to be caught in a cycle of feeling addicted to work, overworked, and finally, burnt out.

The Distinction Between Burnout, Overwork, and Workaholism

As we have run through each condition’s definition or symptoms, we can easily say that there are clear distinctions between burnout, overwork, and workaholism. From the descriptions above, burnout manifests more inwardly and deals more with the meaning of a person’s work and a diminution of his appreciation for the impact of his work.

Overwork, on the other hand, is more of an act, rather than being a condition. It is a misappreciation of one’s capacity to do work—biting off more than you can chew—often aimed to either impress people or to achieve a standard of work promoted within an organization. And lastly, workaholism is what happens when one becomes infatuated with work—a false love, an addiction where a person is constantly thinking about working, and where work assumes too much value in one’s life.

There are differences between these three, but in worst cases, these three become part of one picture or one case. As an example, a person who is addicted to work will work as many hours as he can, leading to overwork. The overwork goes on for so long that the person questions whether all his work is even worth it. Promoted or not, there seems to be no end in sight.

Appreciation and accolades at work lead to more responsibility—more work. The person caves in to burnout, to which he is eventually driven to quit his job. Job gap or not, the person finds another job, hoping to “find more meaning.” But alas, the person falls in love with the job, gets addicted to it, and once again begins the cycle of workaholism-overwork-burnout.

Why We Need to Stop Thinking Positively About Working Too Much

Under the system of capitalism, it is rewarding when someone works too much. In a system where more productivity means more money and more money means more return on investments, people who love their jobs too much are a big plus. We need to stop thinking so positively about working too much. The workaholism being praised and romanticized by the startups who eventually became big deals—Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla—to name a few, (which are all dream companies for people who want to shine up their resume) is all a big fat lie.

Unless you have a stake or some form of ownership in a company, wherein if it gets richer, so do you, you shouldn’t have to work too much. It’s inhumane to think of people as machines, but perhaps in doing so, you would realize that we all have our limits, too.

Machines, while all they do is work, are still prone to downtime. When an essential piece inside machinery breaks down, the machine usually stops its work until that part is fixed or replaced. And when the machine is broken down to a point where it is no longer of any use, it is decommissioned. Since productivity is lost by the machine’s end-of-life, the machine is replaced.

As a worker, a dutiful member under the system of capitalism, think of yourself as a machine. You will eventually break down, and you will be used until such a point where you no longer are of any use. And somehow, someway, somewhen—you will be replaced.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.