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If You Could Start Again

The true cost of workaholism and the quest for fulfilling work

I’m going to skip the hook on this one. Workaholism is real. And it’s a problem. Some may believe that feeling compelled to work and perseverating about work and obliterating reasonable expectations and boundaries despite the negative toll of work work work is a sign of the kind of obsession required for greatness, but did anyone watch It’s a Wonderful Life or American Psycho or Black Swan or Jingle All the Way? Did anyone listen to “Hurt” by Johnny Cash? Did anyone read A Christmas Carol or Macbeth or The Shining? All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy? Maybe that one’s a stretch. Still, did anyone notice the cost that obsessive, ambitious workaholics pay? Pardon my frugality, but with the exception of freedom fighting and meeting the basic needs of survival and maybe being lost in space––alone––an all-in bet on work is too much. If the personal cost is of little concern, let’s put a couple more chips on the table. How about gender equality and the next generation?

First, the straightforward costs that many workaholics are willing to stomach. The Pew Research Center asked “17 advanced economies” what makes life meaningful (2021)––as well as "Americans" (2018)––and there was a dominant recurring frontrunner: family. Now, if you fit the category of someone who works hard and long hours because you love your family and have the inescapable responsibility of meeting their basic needs––if you feel like a lone king running away from a queen and her soldiers in a game of chess––then I wish you imminent peace and joy. There are other exceptions––like Nelson Mandela who said, “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made”––but most readers don’t fit them. Workaholics, consciously or unconsciously, put work in front of family, even though they know it should be the other way around, and it doesn’t lead to happiness. It’s against our nature. In general, we know that relationships are the secret to a “fulfilling life,” but time and again people sacrifice that fulfillment for work.

What about the gender implications? In The Will to Change, bell hooks says, Workaholism is the most common addiction in men because it is usually rewarded and not taken seriously as detrimental to their emotional well-being” (2004, p. 158). Work can be addicting, and society glorifies overworking. We have dissolved the already blurred boundaries between work and home. We have given husbands and fathers permission to prioritize work over family. Men disregard their problems and health because they are too busy. We put the patriarch on the pedestal. Mass media tends to normalize and even revere the overworking man. In essence, we incentivize and oblige gender stereotypes. Why do we do this? First, because it pays. Second, because it is easier––and more glorious––than going home, corralling children, cooking dinner, cleaning the dishes, and every essential life task in between.

Along with permitting and celebrating men who “sacrifice” their relationships in the name of work, workaholism stacks the decks against women. In the Pew surveys, women were more likely to mention family (and somewhat more likely to emphasize their health) as a source of satisfaction in their lives than men. However, this doesn’t mean that women lack the fortitude of a workaholic. If anything, it shows that a higher percentage of women better understand and manage their priorities. We know women are capable of working around the clock because they have been doing it––forever. In Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez explains that women, globally, do three times more unpaid care work than men, twice as much childcare and four times as much housework, and though women have been earning more income over time, they still have done the majority of unpaid work irrespective of the proportion of the household income they bring in (2019). Make no mistake, women work.

So, how does workaholism stack the decks against women? Though views are changing, society still believes women should be doing the majority of childrearing and housework. Where a man is more likely to stay late at the office or dismiss himself from the dinner table, a woman more likely feels the pressure of meeting her duties as a mother or housewarmer (not a word, yet). That doesn’t mean she is less likely to feel the desire to succeed in her own career. However, odds are the woman who calls home to say she won’t make it back for dinner or who leaves the dishes in the sink will be seen as negligent of her responsibilities. More often than not, the gender biased obligations of women leave them with more to do in less time than men––with less pay. In Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, Celeste Headlee sheds a lot of light on this reality:

Existing disparities in pay and promotion are not due to a lack of work on the part of women; they are the result of centuries of discrimination and bias. Fathers are more respected, mothers are less so. You will not change that by working fifty-hour weeks or keeping productivity journals; true change will require new policies and procedures. (2020, p. 110)

While we work on that, we can keep in mind that glorifying overworking––and demanding it––is widening the gender gap rather than narrowing it.

Next up, hamstringing children. Maybe that should have been the hook. Maybe not. We’ll never know. A recent study of adults who grew up with a workaholic parent found that they develo