Americans have a thing about work, and not in a good way. In two-career households with young children (family units with plenty of good reasons to be at home) more than two-thirds of all couples work a total of more than 80 hours a week. That’s double the rate found in Europe – where it happens that they also take four times more paid vacation.
However proud we may be of our U.S. work ethic, after decades of overtime, some of us are also showing signs of wear. According to one survey, more than 50 percent of us say our jobs leave us “overtired and overwhelmed,” and more than 60 percent of us believe the demands of our job have increased in the last six months.
We’re a bit like riders on a runaway carnival ride that just keeps picking up speed. We may be feeling rather queasy, but we’re not quite ready to call it quits, either.
Oh, we know we’ve got a problem, but for the most part, we’re doing very little about it. Part of the challenge is that whenever we do begin to ponder the causes for our overwork, we quickly discover that they are vast, interlocking and seemingly intractable.
There are external causes: from the absence of healthcare for part-time workers to the inherent insecurities of laboring in a corporate culture hell-bent on maximizing worker productivity (Give us your brain! Your soul! Your lunch hour! Your Saturday mornings!) even as they plot their next round of “right-sizing” initiatives. And then there’s the sticky web of consumer-culture pressures that keep us slaving away to afford the next bigger-better thing (and pay down our mounting debt).
The external causes are bad enough. But then there are also a host of internal causes – the beliefs, attitudes, habits and personality traits that drive us to overwork. Oh, the musty Puritan fables! The ghosts of hard-working grandfathers past! The guilt complexes and performance anxieties and out-of-control ambitions! Inside our craniums, often beneath the surface of our conscious understanding, they’re all conspiring and crooning away about the nobility or necessity of never-ending work. And these internal forces are very often the things that get in the way of our questioning the external forces that merit our attention.
Mix the internal and external fiascoes together and it seems like way too big a mess for any of us to fix. So we put our heads down and work harder. Fortunately, while we’ve all been busy working too damn hard, some clever researchers have been busy turning up surprising discoveries about the syndrome we call “workaholism.” One thing they’ve sorted out is that workaholism doesn’t necessarily qualify as a bona fide addiction. Nor is it necessarily particularly bad for everyone whom it afflicts.
Indeed, some folks seem to thrive on professional hyperdrive. But there are plenty more who don’t. And researchers have discovered that those who are harmed by overwork generally wind up doing both themselves and their employers a disservice by persisting at it. Happily, for those interested in making a change, many remedies exist.
“The bottom line,” says Lynley McMillan, PhD, a clinical psychologist and workaholism researcher in famously life-balanced New Zealand, “is that if you are a workaholic and it is causing you no problem, go forth and enjoy. But if you are a workaholic and there is a problem, then there are some things we can do to help.”
The Making of a Workaholic
So what is this thing we call workaholism, really? What are the symptoms? Is it staying glued to your computer until 7 p.m. or later every night? Checking your work email at odd hours and on weekends? Keeping stacks of clean shirts in your file drawer in case of overnights? It would help to have some consensus. And, at least among researchers who specialize in the habits of the overworked, there is some.
While it is widely agreed that workaholics tend to work long hours (say 50 or more a week), working long hours does not, in itself, make you a workaholic. Rather, it appears there are three primary factors that characterize individuals who work to excess:
1. Gung-Ho Go Factor. Workaholics are naturally inclined to go that extra mile. “They have a high motivation to work above and beyond what might be considered normal expectations,” says Michael O’Driscoll, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and one of a handful of researchers who have studied workaholism systematically. Workaholics, he asserts, are generally those folks who don’t let a project go until they have fussed, pushed and pummeled it to greatness – or to death. They are the folks who will still be cranking on a project at 10 p.m. because “it isn’t done yet.”
2. No “Off” Switch. Workaholics are characterized by an inability to power down not just their physical workday, but also the mental software dedicated to work. “They tend to think about work just about wherever they are,” says O’Driscoll. “They carry work around in their heads all the time, whether they are watching TV or doing errands or whatever.”
According to O’Driscoll, this tendency is an important distinguishing factor in separating a dyed-in-the-wool workaholic from a garden-variety hard worker. Bryan Robinson, PhD, author of Chained to the Desk (NYU Press, 2001), concurs, explaining the difference between a workaholic and other merely passionate workers in this way: “A workaholic on vacation will be on the ski slopes thinking about work,” he says, “while the passionate worker might very well be in the office, dreaming about the ski slopes.”
3. Profession Takes Priority. Workaholics tend to make everything else in their life play second fiddle to their jobs. On the “mattering map” of his or her life, a workaholic is likely to define a huge chunk of acreage as professional territory, make it the capital city, mark it with a big red star – and then make sure that every bridge, freeway and train track in sight leads directly to it.
Seen from an aerial perspective, the job would look like a booming metropolis, while even the most important nonwork parts of his or her life might look like sparsely populated outer-ring suburbs.
In other words, a workaholic’s job preoccupies not just his or her brain and energy, but also his or her basic priorities. “It is an obsessive psychological involvement,” explains O’Driscoll, “where work tends to take precedence over all other elements in your life.”
If you were thinking that this obsessive level of devotion and attention sounds a little like a drinking or drug addiction, you’d be right – but only to a point. It turns out that researchers have spent quite a lot of time debating whether or not workaholism can be defined as an addiction and, based on the evidence turned up thus far, they have never entirely agreed.
O’Driscoll is coauthor of a recent study in the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling that investigated the current state of knowledge about workaholism. What they discovered is that while the term has been around for 30 years, there is little hard data to back it up.
Addictions are known to interfere with your mental health and ability to function, to create a refusal to acknowledge the problem, and to ultimately worsen over time. While many researchers have observed that all these things can and do occur in certain cases of workaholism, others argue that the data is too inconclusive and inconsistent for workaholism to warrant a real “addiction” label.
So is it, or isn’t it? Well, it depends on whom you ask. “People who are workaholic are using their work to fulfill something inside themselves that is incomplete,” says Robinson, a UNC research psychologist and one of the chief proponents of the addiction view of workaholism. “Just as alcoholics hide their drinking, workaholics also hide their work. When I was a workaholic I would sneak my work when others weren’t around.”
There are other similarities between overwork and alcoholism, argues Robinson. “A workaholic gets high off the adrenaline from doing three or four things at one time, will go through withdrawal as they come off their work, even crash and sleep in their clothes like an alcoholic coming off a drunk. They’ve been known to have mental brownouts in much the same way alcoholics have blackouts: They will find themselves asking a question three times, getting in the car and forgetting where they are going, being absent-minded. When you look at the trajectory,” he asserts, “workaholism follows a similar trajectory as alcoholism.”
Finally, as with other addictions, Robinson notes, the workaholic’s version of reality differs from that of close observers. “There is always a discrepancy between a workaholic’s view of the problem and that of the spouse,” says Robinson. “I have seen it in case study after case study.”
But case studies and anecdotal evidence don’t convince many scientists. Even though legions of workaholics may step forward and recognize these traits in themselves, researchers disagree as to whether they are a representative sampling of all workaholics and, thus, whether workaholism can indeed be considered an addiction. The broadest studies indicate that, despite many passionately held opinions and intensely argued positions on the matter, there simply isn’t enough empirical evidence to make the call.
“We stepped back and said, ‘Let’s just get a view of what workaholism looks like,'” says Lynley McMillan, PhD, a colleague of O’Driscoll’s and lead author of the recent British Journal paper that surveyed the landscape of workaholic research. “We made no assumptions about whether it was an addiction or not.” But they reviewed data, they conducted some tests, and in short, says O’Driscoll, “We found that the addiction explanation really didn’t stand up.”
Addiction or not, definitive research outcomes or not, there is little question that an excessive focus on work can result in disruptive imbalances, costs and questionable tradeoffs for its victims (who might be anyone). The lure of workaholism, it seems, is not limited to those working in high-powered professions such as medicine and law.
Classic images of workaholics might include licensed professionals, ambitious executives and corporate raiders – the career-atrons you see clawing their way past each other on The Apprentice. But in fact, the work-obsessed personality can be found in virtually any profession.
Consider the examples offered in a recently released collection of worker interviews called Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs (Three Rivers Press, 2001). One woman who was profiled – an industrial-adhesives sales rep – described a career she so loved that she was willing to endure marathon bouts of client entertaining, showing up for weekly games of underwater hockey to win over one account, and arriving at a shop floor at 3 a.m. in a crisp business suit to win another. One man profiled in the book decided to divorce his wife so he could focus on developing the best crime-scene cleaning company in the Bay Area. Yet another of the book’s subjects had traded his personal life to long days spent manufacturing tofu.
The fact that we can find meaning and motivation in all kinds of work is admirable, in a way, but also more than a little mysterious. What are the mechanics that make one person live to work overtime and another perfectly happy to regularly clock out at 5 sharp? What is it that turns a tofu maker (someone presumably invested in a healthy lifestyle) into a work-obsessed wacky? What makes a woman give up a good night’s sleep to sell glue that holds labels on soda bottles? What makes a person abandon a marriage so he can be free to clean up bloodstained carpets?
According to the definitive Workaholism Battery questionnaire created by the research firm Spence & Robbins, to understand what makes a workaholic, you need to understand that there is actually a range of different workaholic motives and modalities, each of which present different reasons for working long hours, and with different results. Spence & Robbins’s research reveals the following workaholic types:
Compulsives: Those who are obsessed with controlling every aspect of a job in its entirety. These individuals strenuously resist delegating and they can’t stop thinking about work, even though they might want to. Compulsives want to be running the show all the time.
Perfectionists: Those driven by a desire to “make everything just right,” and who find lesser efforts and outcomes to be unacceptable. Perfectionists are at the mercy of a distorted and unattainable sense of goal. It’s not so much that they live to control and do everything themselves; it’s just that they often see this as the only means of achieving the high standards and perfect outcome they so desire.
Enthusiasts: Those who simply love and enjoy their work and are so drawn to it that they want to?do it?all the time, even if it negatively affects their personal relationships and other priorities. Enthusiasts tend to find a great deal of intrinsic satisfaction in their work and enjoy the process as much as the outcome.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that the first two forms of workaholism are more likely to cause serious problems in your life, while the third may pose fewer drawbacks. Some researchers tend to group the first two types together, in fact, by virtue of the similarity of their neurotic sufferings, referring to them in blanket terms as a more “addictive” type. Even though enthusiasts may pay a certain price for their workaholism (personal relationships and physical health are particularly likely to suffer), they enjoy the rewards enough that they seem more at ease with the trade-offs.
This may explain, at least partially, why it has been so difficult to come to any sort of definitive, empirical decision about whether workaholism qualifies as an addiction. Take a hundred different folks who all clock a gazillion hours, live to work, think about work all the time and so on, and you may be looking at one subgroup that exhibits all the most dysfunctional traits and symptoms of addiction, and another relatively well-adjusted subgroup that exhibits almost none.
“There are definitely different types of workaholics,” notes Ronald Burke, PhD, a business professor at York University in Ontario and author of Workaholism In Organizations (Routledge, 2003). “One type that tends to be quite satisfied and productive, and another type that ends up being very dissatisfied. Even though both types might be working the same number of hours, the second type reports more psychological symptoms.”
Addict or Enthusiast?
The key variables that define these two types appear to be rooted, at least in large part, to their sense of self-value. Work enthusiasts, notes Burke, “actually have very high self-esteem and, as a rule, aren’t working to prove anything.” They may enjoy the external recognition and success they achieve as the result of their efforts, he says, and are certainly motivated by the satisfaction they get from the work itself, but they don’t see their value as entirely dependent upon it.
Work enthusiasts, according to Burke, hold “positive motivations” for working. “They are less perfectionistic and happier to delegate work,” he notes, and as a result, they experience much less job stress.
“Addict workaholics,” by contrast, are frequently driven by their desire to assuage or compensate for some internal self-doubt. Addictive types work a lot of hours “for defensive reasons,” says Burke. Those reasons may include a need to prove to others that they are valuable, and to overcome a pervasive sense of low self-esteem. Such motivations, Burke notes, tend to bring out individuals’ most powerful compulsive and perfectionist tendencies. (For more on perfectionism, see “Fire Your Inner Taskmaster” in the Dec. 2004 Experience Life.)
“Work addicts approach their jobs with high levels of rigidity,” explains Burke. “Things have to be perfect, so they can’t trust anyone else to do the work.” Unfortunately, being unable to keep your hands out of every detail of a project not only reduces your productivity and forces you into marathon overtime, it also tends to engender a certain amount of resentment and social discord. “Workaholics have difficulty being team players,” says Robinson. “Most are very ego-driven, and may come off as more concerned with how they are going to shine than they are with anything else.”
This can be hard for other people to understand, and harder for them to tolerate, which means not only do “addict” workaholics end up working outrageously hard, they often end up with little thanks or goodwill for their trouble. In fact, they may end up facing quite a lot of conflict, which leads to, again, more stress.
So where does all this pesky perfectionism and compulsivity come from? Most psychologists agree it is based in flawed “belief systems,” or ways of thinking. Studies by Burke have suggested that those who feel driven to work rather than merely desirous of work, tend to think about the world in the same, not-too-encouraging way: They see their place in life as one of striving against others, they recognize few moral principles guiding the course of nature, and they think excessively about what others think of them.
All of these factors contribute to creating a mindset that encourages you to outwork your colleagues for reasons that have little do with your own happiness or satisfaction. It’s a mindset that makes you less trusting that your work will be recognized on its own merits, that makes you more inclined to try to win the approval of coworkers through sheer tenacity.
“We call it an ‘external locus of control,'” says Robinson. “It means the workaholism is usually an attempt to prove by your accomplishments that you are OK, you’re adequate.” The problem is, it doesn’t usually work out so well.
The Damage Done
Take a good long look at a compulsive or perfectionistic work addict, and you are likely to be looking at a fairly stressed-out person. Take a broader view, and you’re likely to see other stressed-out people in their immediate vicinity. Indeed, research conducted over the last 20 years by Robinson has determined that adult children of workaholics (presumably Burke’s “work addicts”) have higher ratings of depression and tend to be not as optimistic about their control over their own happiness. Robinson also found less marital cohesion in workaholic couples, though it remains unclear whether the overwork caused the marital discord or whether it was the other way around.
“Workaholism can destroy families, and it often has devastating effects on kids,” says Burke. “Workaholics tend to have higher levels of anxiety, greater health risks, more chronic illnesses, and they tend to have higher rates of depression. We also have empirical research that kids of workaholics have higher ratings of anxiety and depression.”
All of which suggests that it’s in most workaholics’ own best interest to reconsider whether their current work habits are really serving their highest choices and priorities. If you are telling yourself that you are doing all this “for your family,” for example, you may want to think again (and perhaps ask your family what they think).
If you have sold yourself on the story that you are “just going to do this for the next five years” and then shift it down a gear, you may want to consider whether your health, marriage and friendships are likely to hold that long.
If you are telling yourself you’re doing your job “for the love of it,” but in reality you spend most of your waking hours worrying, fuming, thumping your head on the desk or fighting a rising sense of panic, you may want to ask yourself whether this is the kind of love affair that’s more likely to end happily ever after – or in a suicide pact.
Most important, unless you are an “enthusiast” workaholic largely satisfied with the work-life bargain you’ve struck (in which case, one might wonder why you’re still reading this article), it’s probably a good idea to question how you can begin turning the situation around.
Disconnect From the Desk
O’Driscoll thinks that unhappy workaholics are mostly hampered by an inability to recognize all the work they have done. Many organizational tasks and achievements we engage in every day, he notes, often pass themselves off as social transactions or mere transitions. To discount these activities, he notes, is both impractical and counterproductive.
A famous Harvard Business Review study of executives from the early 1980s found that high performers not only were able to delegate details and focus instead on the big-picture questions, but that they also spent the majority of their time in small conversations with a variety of people – often about topics not directly related to work. The author, John Kotter, concluded that the executives were performing important work-related (e.g., relationship-building, investigating, networking, transitioning) functions during the course of these conversations. Chances are that when you do this stuff, you are also performing the same functions. So count all work, including work thought, work talk, work relating and work transitioning, as work.
Some additional strategies are discussed in the sidebar at the end of this story. Still others can be found in the resources suggested below. In fact, if there is any silver lining to the dark cloud of workaholism, it’s that there appears to be a growing body of research, strategies and tactics surrounding its dispersal. But as with most problems, the first step is recognizing that you have one.
So whether you’re a compulsive, perfectionist or purely enthusiastic workaholic, take time to ask yourself whether the work ride you’re currently on is turning out to be fun – or just turning your stomach. Is this an exhilarating thrill that’s offering you an up-high, clear view of your most important life priorities? Or have you been dropping in a free-fall, hanging on for dear life and squeezing your eyes shut while the scenery turns into one big blur?
The important thing to remember is that you’re not just a rider on this one. You’re also the person at the controls. You can slow things down, go in a different direction, choose a different ride. You can also gather your insights about why you chose the ride you did. So, with a little focus and conscious choice, the next time you strap yourself into your own personal “career-coaster,” you can settle in, test the steering, get the feel for the brakes and then enjoy the ride of your life.