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Workaholism and the myth of hard work

Workaholism is growing like a virus.

Workaholism is the respectable addiction in our society but it's costing organizations in terms of loss of productivity, poor relationships and employee engagement. During this recession, with the increased pressure on workers to perform, the problem is getting worse. We need to reexamine also the myth of "hard work" as the route to success in light of growing income inequality.

In Japan, workaholism is called "karoshi"—death by overwork—and it's estimated to cause 1,000 deaths per year and nearly 5% of that country's stroke and heart attack deaths in employees under age 60. In the Netherlands, it's resulted in a new condition known as "leisure illness," estimated to affect 3% of its entire population, according to one study. Workers actually get physically sick on weekends and vacations as they stop working and try, in vain, to relax. Statistics Canada in 2009 reported that 1/3 of Canadians considered themselves workaholics.

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What has happened to the perennial predictions of a leisure society and escape from long hours of work? In the late 1700's, Benjamin Franklin predicted we'd work a 4-hour week. In 1933 the U.S. Senate passed a bill for an official 30-hour workweek, which was vetoed by President Roosevelt. In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour workweek by 1985 and a 14-hour work week by 2000. None of those predictions have come to pass. In fact the opposite is true. The number of hours people work is increasing.

Working hours in North America and the U.K. have steadily risen in the last 20 years. A DIT research report found that 1 in 6 employees now work more than 60 hours a week. Full time employees in the U.K. work the longest hours in Europe and a British Medical Association report found that 77% of consultants work more than 50 yours a week and 46% more than 60 hours.

According to U.S. Census and CPS data, the share of employed American men regularly working more than 48 hours per week is higher today than it was 25 years ago. Using CPS data from 1979 to 2006, this increase was greatest among highly educated, highly-paid, and older men, was concentrated in the 1980s, and was largely confined to workers paid on a salaried basis. A new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirms that on average, people in the U.S. are putting in 20 per cent more hours of work than they did in 1970. It also shows that in the same period, the number of hours worked in all the other industrialized countries, except for Canada, decreased. The average work week in the U.S. is 54 hours according to a Sage Software Survey in 2007. In an average week, only 14 percent work 40 hours or less. One-third work 50-59 hours a week, and 80% work between 40 and 79 hours according to a 2006 study of 2,500 Americans. In Japan, in contrast, annual work hours declined 17 per cent and in France they declined by 24 per cent. In general, a third of all American workers could be viewed as chronically overworked in 2004, according to a report by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute in New York City.

The problem of increased working hours is made more acute by the fact that fewer workers take vacations and breaks than previously. One recent study by Expedia.com showed that only 38% of U.S. employees are taking all of their earned vacation days. The average used only 14 out of 18 days. At least 30 percent of employed adults don't take all their vacation days, according to a 2005 Harris Interactive poll. Each year, Americans hand back 421 million days to their employers.

The impact on people and the organizations of overwork are significant. In 2002, The Work Foundation reported that job satisfaction has plummeted and that so-called "high performance" management techniques actually increased worker dissatisfaction and performance. A British Social Attitudes survey and several Gallup studies have pointed to increasing levels of job dissatisfaction among workers in all industries.

A contributing factor to the problem of workaholism is the prevailing belief in hard work as the route to success, particularly wealth. Notions of hard work are predominantly held by the middle class and poor people and originate from the industrial revolution and Protestant religious tenants, which viewed hard work both as a virtue and magic formula for success. Hard work has never been a belief embraced by the upper class and wealthy.

But the growing problem of income inequality, particularly in the U.S., has clearly called into question the validity of the hard work belief.

The United States is the most economically stratified society in the western world. As The Wall Street Journal reported, a recent study found that the top .01% or 14,000 American families hold 22.2% of wealth, and the bottom 90%, or over 133 million families, just 4% of the nation's wealth. The U.S. Census Bureau and the World Wealth Report 2010 both report increases for the top 5% of households even during the current recession. Based on Internal Revenue Service figures, the richest 1% has tripled their cut of America's income pie in one generation. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and middle- and working-class Americans has more than tripled in the past three decades, according to a June 25, 2010 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. New data shows that the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest parts of the population in 2007 was the highest it's been in 80 years, while the share of income going to the middle one-fifth of Americans shrank to its lowest level ever.

The Pew Foundation study, reported in the New York Times, concluded, "The chance that children of the poor or middle class will climb up the income ladder, has not changed significantly over the last three decades." The Economist's special report, Inequality in America, concluded, "The fruits of productivity gains have been skewed towards the highest earners and towards companies whose profits have reached record levels as a share of GDP."

It would not be hard to conclude that even with positive and hopeful attitudes of the middle class and poor people, hard work alone is unlikely to bring the promise of wealth into their lives.

Most people have been told all their lives that the only way to be successful in life is to work harder and longer than the next guy.

But the evidence tells us that that's simply not true. Consider some of the most successful people of our time: Warren Buffett has a tiny office and employs only a handful of people. He works about three hours a day, but he's one of the richest men in the world. Bill Gates dropped out of college but went on to create one of most influential and successful companies in the world. Neither George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan were fans of hard work, yet they were both elected president of the United States twice.

How does hard work relate to workaholism?

In the U.S., and Canada workaholism remains what it's always been: the so-called "respectable addiction" that's dangerous as any other—whether or not they hold jobs. "Yes, workaholism is an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it's not the same as working hard or putting in long hours," says Bryan Robinson, PhD, one of the leading researchers on the disorder and author of Chained to the Desk and other books on workaholism. Workaholic's obsession with work is all occupying, which prevents workaholics from maintaining healthy relationships, outside interests, or even take measures to protect their health.

So who are these workaholics? According to several research studies, there is no typical profile, although Baby Boomers are more susceptible to being workaholics than Generation Y workers. Most workaholics are successful. And workaholics are more likely to be managers or executives, more likely to be unhappy about their work/life balance and work on average more than 50 hours per week. They neglect their health to the point of devastating results and ignore their friends and family. They avoid going on vacation so they don't have to miss work. And even if they do go on vacation, they aren't fully present because their mind is still on work.

One thing that we do know is that workaholics tend to seek out jobs that allow them to exercise their addiction. The workplace itself does not create the addiction any more than the supermarket creates food addiction, but it does enable it. Workaholics tend to seek high-stress jobs to keep the adrenaline rush going.

Research shows that the seeds of workaholism are often planted in childhood, resulting in low self-esteem that carries into adulthood. Many workaholics are the children of alcoholics or come from some other type of dysfunctional family, and work addiction is an attempt to control a situation that is not controllable. Or they tend to be products of what can be called 'looking good families' whose parents tend to be perfectionists and expect unreasonable success from their kids. These children grow up thinking that nothing is ever good enough. Some just throw in the towel, but others say, 'I'm going to show I'm the best in everything so my parents approve of me.'"

The problem is, perfection is unattainable, whether you're a kid or a successful professional. Anyone who carries a mandate for perfection is susceptible to workaholism because it creates a situation where the person never gets to cross the finish line, because it keeps moving farther out.

Here's the irony. Despite logging in mega hours and sacrificing their health and loved ones for their jobs, workaholics are frequently ineffective employees. Workaholics tend to be less effective than other workers because it's difficult for them to be team players, they have trouble delegating or entrusting co-workers, or they take on so much that they aren't as organized as others.

Research indicates four distinct workaholic "working styles": The bulimic workaholic feels the job must be done perfectly or not at all. Bulimic workaholics often can't get started on projects, and then scramble to complete it by deadline, often frantically working to the point of exhaustion—with sloppy results. The second style is the relentless workaholic, the adrenaline junkie who often takes on more work than can possibly be done. In an attempt to juggle too many balls, they often work too fast or are too busy for careful, thorough results The third style is the attention-deficit workaholic who often starts with fury, but fails to finish projects—often because they lose interest for another project. They often savor the "brainstorming" aspects but get easily bored with the necessary details or follow-through. And finally there is the savoring workaholic who is slow, methodical, and overly scrupulous. They often have trouble letting go of projects and don't work well with others. These are often consummate perfectionists, frequently missing deadlines because "it's not perfect."

Where workaholism affects organizations is the lack of knowledge by managers. Many companies often confuse workaholics for hard workers, in essence enabling them on their path to self-destruction.

So how do you know if you're a workaholic? Tarla Grant, writing in the Globe and Mail, on the subject, identified 5 warning signs. See if these describe you:

  • Compared to 5 years ago, work is a regular part of your evenings and weekends;
  • You spend less time with family, friends, community and being engaged in regular activities such as exercise;
  • You eat faster, talk faster, walk faster. You feel like you're constantly trying to "catch up."
  • You're developing skeletal and muscular problems because of the amount of time you spend sitting or standing, under stress;
  • Your focus and concentration is not good, and your productivity is actually declining.

The problem of workaholism is growing in our society and organizations, and the effects underestimated in terms of its impact on the quality of life and economic productivity, an issue that needs to be addressed by our political leaders and captains of industry.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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