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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 developed higher levels of depression and anxiety, an outer-directed reliance on others for decision making, and a lack of inner confidence. These adults were more likely to struggle with long-term relationships while feeling “trapped in a lifelong legacy of personal emptiness, disappointment and depression” (Robinson, 2021). That’s not very nice. The crippling effect of workaholism should give us pause. We might query whether the “investment” we are making for the next generation will pay off––or backfire and collect interest. Perhaps we’ve lost our balance in our relentless toil to tip the scales? Whatever the case, hopefully we can agree, more than less, that helping kids grow is the right thing to do.

Still, there is a problem more acute: adults are asking kids to be workaholics. Many people are familiar with the concept of optimal pressure. The relationship between performance and pressure follows a bell curve: too little or too much pressure decreases performance, while optimal pressure leads to high performance and even a flow state. In The Unlikely Art of Parental Pressure: A Positive Approach to Pushing Your Child to Be Their Best Self, Chris Thurber, PhD and Henry Weisinger, PhD discuss how “well-meaning parents put soul-crushing pressure on kids, leading to under-performance and serious mental health problems instead of social, emotional, and academic success” (2021). In education, I see this truth playing out as we trend farther down the x-axis of pressure, and it’s not just parents pushing the limits. Between adults, peers, an omni-present social media, and hypercompetitive college admissions, the children of today are under immense pressure to perform. They are struggling under a mountain of academic, athletic, and extracurricular demands, and it’s crushing them. The only way not to get pulped is to work longer and harder. To be ordinary is to be irrelevant. It’s not all that surprising to see the growing frequency of stress-related health concerns in schools.

There’s a lot more to learn about the whys of workaholism, like how feelings of inadequacy and insecurity lead to the endless ascent of Mt. Dissatisfaction. Most people embark on the quest for “enough” without realizing that it is an inner journey. It’s all very “One Tin Soldier.” But I’d be talking from the clouds if I told you to assume a meditation position and stop worrying about work. It doesn’t matter. Let it go. Everything will be fine. All you need is love. Plug and play a cliché. In reality––at least the one we humans created for ourselves––we do have to pay the bills, and one of the main reasons people work more than they should is because they need the money. The question is, how much?

Chew on this. Celeste Headlee says, “Overwork is defined as more than fifty hours per week, and people who put in those kinds of hours make only 6 percent more than those with more reasonable schedules. So if you make an average wage of $45,000 a year, you’ll get an extra $2,500 in exchange for working excessive hours” (2020, p. 76). Also, “According to data from the United Nations, work kills more than twice as many people annually than war does and more than both drugs and alcohol combined” (p. 123). And, “If your goal is less stress and more happiness, years of scientific research have proven that rather than trading your time for money, it’s best to trade your money for time” (p. 198).

The hot take: survival related exceptions aside, workaholism is not worth it. The reward is not worth the risk, unless you are willing to risk spending less time working for the reward of better health and wellness. I might be ruffling some feathers here. It may be a case where readers say, “That’s it. He’s gone too far.” When work becomes our identity, I can understand that response. However, we are not our work. You might disagree and say, I am an athlete. I am a banker. I am a teacher. I am a writer. I am an electrician. We’ll have to agree to disagree. If you take those occupations away, you still exist, do you not? You still have a sense of awareness, a pulse, a breath, a purpose. In the tragic stories we hear and experience in our lives, more than we realize, we are getting reminders that work is not the most important thing in life. If we don’t pay attention, no matter how hard we work, life will pass us by.

My least favorite way to end a piece of writing is “in conclusion.” In conclusion, principled leaders can encourage fulfillment instead of preoccupation. They can better model work-life balance instead of work-life conflation. Perhaps our company mission statements ought to articulate the steps we take to achieve them, and the steps we avoid. Then, the colleague who quips that their family hasn’t seen them for months receives a reminder on mission-alignment, rather than a pat on the back. As a working man, I’d like to be a part of an organization that holds me equally responsible for the care of the next generation. I want the leadership to understand that work is intimately tied to my family, friends, health, dreams––not because the job is everything, but because I work to serve those things. I want the leadership to value the most important things in life, to know what those things are, and to insist that I move them to the top of my priority list. I don’t want to feel guilty for prioritizing those things and pressured to be a rockstar like Johnny Cash singing:

And you could have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt

If I could start again

A million miles away

I would keep myself

I would find a way

It boils down to this. I’d like to be a part of an organization that incentivizes integrity. With honorable exceptions, workaholism is selfish. It is an addiction to personal success and validation. It may lead to high summits, yet, in the inevitable distance, there are higher peaks still, and, of course, the most treacherous and essential part of the journey, the way down. Integrity is having laser focus on the shot at hand while playing the long game. Also, we embark on the quest for integrity with others. In a fellowship, principled leaders go last, just like Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. It was Gandalf who said we don’t need to wield great power, that “it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” That’s a mission I can get behind.


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