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The New Workaholism

Workaholism is pervasive in the American workplace of the 21st Century

It’s been 27 years since the publication of Diane Fassel’s groundbreaking book entitled Working Ourselves to Death (1990), which introduced the notion of how work can become addictive in much the same way that other process (or non-substance) addictions result in self-destructive behaviors (e.g. gambling, food, sex). In her book, Fassel explains the concept of workaholism, how workaholism progresses over time, and how it impacts on both individuals, loved ones, and families. She also describes the “workaholic organization” in which she characterizes by expectations of long work hours, no vacations, and a relentless, driven quality. Fassel also explains her theories of how and why workaholism develops and how certain institutions such as our educational system supports workaholic behavior.

Fast forward to an article by Dan Lyons which appeared in the New York Times on September 3, 2017, entitled “In Silicon Valley, 9 to 5 is for Losers”. Here Lyons describes how many tech start- ups pride themselves on an extreme work ethic in which the expectation is that one will devote themselves totally to their work at the expense of any type of personal or social life. This comes at a time when some corporations had just begun to look at the importance of work-life balance and the importance of reasonable work schedules. In addition, there have been several studies which support the idea that “more is not necessarily better” when it comes to work and that if anything, productivity tends to decline the more work hours one is expected to work. Such was the findings of the Stanford economist, John Pencavel (2015) who found that working beyond 56 hours a week resulted in lowered productivity. Yet in the world of Silicon Valley there is a work culture that has evolved in which extreme work schedules and excessive devotion to career becomes the norm and the only path to success and financial payoff. As Lyon’s points out, workaholism has become rebranded as a “lifestyle choice”. Lyons points out, for example, that there are now “Start-up, hustle boot camps”(such as Hustle Con) where for fees ranging from $300 to $2000 attendees can be treated to successful “hustlers” who have made fortunes and are willing to share their secrets. The allure of becoming a “20-something tech celebrity” has such power in today’s American landscape that “every year, thousands of fresh recruits flood into San Francisco” hoping to develop the next app or the next techie invention which will propel them into becoming instance billionaires.

As Diane Fassel points out, addiction is about obsessions and compulsive behaviors that eventually results in life becoming unmanageable and out-of-control much like an alcoholic or heroin addicted individual whose life begins to revolve solely around his or her drug of preference. The caveat however, is that in American culture, hard work and a hard work ethic are considered a prized characters traits, not “character defects” as would be defined by most 12 step programs. So just at the person with an Alcohol Use Disorder may deny the devastating impact that his or her drinking may have on just about all aspects of their lives, it is common and somewhat easier for the workaholic to deny the devastating impact on that their compulsive work behavior has on their friendships, their romantic relationships and their family life. So as Lyons points out when people say, “I rarely get to see to my kids” because of work demands, the common response would be “suck it up, you want to be successful don’t you?”

Granted there are many professions in which extreme work hours becomes a “rite of passage”. We see that in many medical residency programs (especially for those in the most highly paid specialties e.g. surgery). The same holds true for attorneys who compete for coveted clerkships. Probably the most intense work schedules are for those who serve in the military, especially in combat zones where there is no down time. No wonder veterans come home after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and find themselves feeling bored, depressed, lonely and often yearn to be back in combat with their platoons. One veteran once described the process of going from fighting in Iraq/Afghanistan to returning home as one of going from “hero to zero”.

It’s one thing to be a workaholic and quite another to work for one. Those who find themselves in the employment of workaholic bosses or supervisors are often subject to exploitation and various forms of workplace abuse including bullying. Most workaholics expect (if not demand) that their employees will work as hard as they do and will devote undivided attention to the corporate mission and bottom line. This type of unrealistic expectation exists even when these workaholic bosses offer employees little or no incentives other than keeping their jobs. A workaholic boss models behavior that conveys to their employees/supervisees that to have a life outside of work is tantamount to treason or betrayal. Remember when Bob Cratchitt asks Scrooge to leave at a reasonable hour to spend Christmas Eve with his family? Scrooge yells Bob and accuses him of stealing from him by asking to leave early. My advice for those working for demeaning, demanding workaholics, get out as soon as you can or at very least begin to develop effective stress buffers (exercise, listening to music, therapy etc). Setting boundaries may help but may not be long lasting. Unfortunately, workaholics are very unlikely to change unless they experience a life-changing catastrophic event like a divorce or a death of loved one. We saw some workaholic executives make incredible changes after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11th. Others reported for work the next day as if nothing changed or happened.

For workaholics who find that they are depleted and lonely or that their work goals and riches don’t always translate into satisfaction and fulfillment, I recommend that it’s never too late to examine your values and what’s really important in your life. Remember no one on their deathbed ever says, “Gee I wish I spent more time at the office”.

References

Fassel, Diane (2009). Working Ourselves to Death and the Rewards of Recovery. New York: Bantam Books.

Lyons, Dan (2017, Sept 3). In Silicon Valley, 9 to 5 is for Losers. New York Times, Sunday Review, pg. 2

Pencavel, J. (2015, Dec.). The productivity of working hours. Economic Journal, 125, p. 2052-2076.

Pencavel, J. (2015, Aug). The labor supply of self-employed workers: The choice of working hours in worker co-ops. Journal of Comparative Economics, 43 (3), 677-689.

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