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May 27, 2016 2:49 am

Workaholics and the Torah

avatar by Pini Dunner

People at work. Photo: Wikipedia.

People at work. Photo: Wikipedia.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have debated for decades whether or not “workaholism” is a mental illness — or to put it more simply, whether being a workaholic is a good thing or a bad thing. The most recently published study appeared last month, authored by Malissa Clark, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia. Based on several years of research, during which she and her team assessed the emotions of so-called workaholics and tried to define the differences between workaholism and work engagement, the study revealed some fascinating particulars that don’t necessarily gel with our intuitive — if uninformed — views on work addiction.

The first person to use the term “workaholism” as an addiction or mental-health definition was the late Wayne Oates, a Southern Baptist minister who doubled as a psychologist. According to him, workaholism was “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” But while ordinary folk easily accept the existence of this mental-health condition — after all, everyone knows a workaholic or two — the mental-health-practitioner fraternity is not so convinced. Many of them argue that in science, one must be able to define and measure a construct, and workaholism seems to defy easy scientific definition. Is it really an addiction, or is it a form of pathology? Or perhaps it is the peculiar warp of people with an inflated work drive who never get true work satisfaction.

Clark suggests that there is a big difference between people who are disproportionately devoted to their work and gain true work satisfaction, and those who work compulsively because they feel the “need” to work, but whose work never seems to make them happier people. Her conclusion is that true workaholics experience very different emotions from people who are simply very engaged with what they do. While a workaholic is motivated mainly by guilt or anxiety, and often experiences anger, disappointment and frustration at work and at home, people who are “work-engaged” are jovial and self-assured, and rather than their work-devotion resulting in depression or irritability, it enhances their lives and the lives of those around them.

Despite all the research and resultant data, the Clark study is somewhat inconclusive. There is just not enough data to make definitive assumptions, neither in the numbers of individual cases studied, nor in the length of time that such studies have been conducted. As Clark herself writes: “Longitudinal research on the outcomes of workaholism is sorely needed. Researchers have proposed that workaholism may lead to positive outcomes in the short-term but negative outcomes in the long-term, [and such] studies may also shed further light on the differences between workaholism and work engagement.”

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So what is the Torah view on workaholism? The Book of Job notes that “man is born to toil”– and yet in this week’s Torah portion, we see that once the Jews reached the Land of Israel they were expected to desist from any kind of agricultural work for an entire year every seventh year, and after the 49th year to take a second full year off work, known as the ‘Yovel’ — or Jubilee, year. How does this notion of extended time off work reconcile itself with the constant work expectation model mentioned in Job?

The Talmud describes escalating consequences for someone who violates Sabbatical year prohibitions and sells his produce. In the first instance, his profits will amount to nothing, as his outgoing expenses increase, eventually exceeding his income. The violator will then be compelled to sell his moveable assets, and eventually even his real estate. Ultimately, says the Talmud, if he continues to trade in Sabbatical year produce, he will be forced to sell himself into the service of idol worshippers. Clearly feeling a need to defend such extreme consequences, the rabbis explain that the severity is due to an irrational commitment by the perpetrator towards commercial activity. Despite sinking ever deeper into the morass, he remains in complete denial, unable to connect his terrible situation to his actions. To quote Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This is also a good definition of addiction — the compulsion to do things that are self-destructive, whose negative consequences increase exponentially as time goes on.

The Book of Job is not talking about workaholism, a state of mind driven by low-self esteem and a lack of contentment. Man was not born for that, although neither was man born to do nothing. True fulfillment is only achieved through devoted effort and hard work, but any such effort will need to be focused in the right direction, in areas that bring a person closer to God, to his family, and for the greater good of mankind. The message of the Sabbatical year is that it is not work that provides; rather it is God who provides. Our material success does not correlate with how hard we work, or for how long.

The Torah assures us that those who observe the laws of Shemitta will have no material worries during their year off, and even if it is followed by a ‘Yovel’ year, food will be abundant then, and in the following year as well. People who cannot reconcile themselves to a God-directed economy, who would rather rely only on the ‘what you put in is what you take out’ model of material success, will find themselves descending into penury if they ignore Shemitta, while those who demonstrate their recognition of our dependence on the Divine will prosper. This will happen both during Shemitta, when they desist from work, and during the six non-Shemitta years when they work very hard. Which just demonstrates that long before there was any research data on workaholism, the Torah and the Talmud had it all figured out.

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