"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Workaholism–Now A Medical Condition

We all know them, men and women who come in early, stay late, and work at night.  My sister worked for a boss in Chicago once who used to call her lieutenants at 11pm to suggest impossible deadlines or ask for urgent memos and budget revisions. She prided herself on being a multi-tasker – a twelve-hour day was inefficient unless three things were done at once every hour.

My sister said that during meetings she would tap out texts and emails on her smartphone, review memos and drafts, and jump in to comment when something interested her.  She was always late, dumped her briefcase and bag like a pukka sahib into the arms of a waiting peon who trailed her and took down instructions. The boss entered the elevator in a flurry, and finally whirled out on the 10th floor while still talking deals with a client. As indefatigable as she was, her frenetic pace was not as efficient or productive as she thought it was.  Her staff wasted hours waiting for her to finish late-starting meetings, became demoralized because of her unreasonable demands, and were enraged by her late evening zingers when frazzle began to set in. She was a terror, and in the end got moved up and out.

I had a friend who operated far at the other end of the spectrum.  He said that he wanted to give the impression that he was a workaholic while freeing himself to have hours to himself.  He was naturally an early-riser, so fired off emails to everyone at 4am, banged out a few before going to bed at 8pm, and produced more work than most before the sun was up. “Bill works all the time”, said his colleagues.  Once his work pattern had been established and recognized, he came in at 10 and left at 4, and had plenty of time to have a leisurely breakfast in the garden and play tennis in the evening. The trick  was tunnel vision and efficiency plus a few illusions.  More work in less time meant fewer hours pulling the plow. He was as intimidating as his workaholic boss and put in fewer than half his hours. 

My sister never figured out what drove her boss to such extremes.  Like many smart, but not that smart people, she might have been working out her intellectual insecurities.  A lot of her bombast seemed designed to show off her mental skills.  Perhaps she had been hardwired to be a kinetic, restless person.  Born long before the ADHD craze, she still might have been a whining, hyper-active pest who couldn’t sit still.  Or maybe she had a yenta for a mother who harangued her about her B+ average. “With those grades, what, you want to end up a kindergarten teacher?”

My sister said that on trips to California she took with her boss, she always tried to see what else might be there other than the familiar budgets, proposals, and spreadsheets. She tried allegorical references to Shakespeare and Kafka and the role of risk and probability in decision-making.  Nada.  The boss nodded, and always returned to work.

I have a friend who retired as soon as he could.  He left his executive position at a well -known international non-profit organization, built a house in the Berkshires, and never looked back. He was one of the few who retired with no regrets, but told me how each floor of his building had at least one office designated for a retired executive who couldn’t let go of the plow and who came in daily, suit and tie, cranking out some incidental memo or document which entered the paper flow and disappeared.  These men wanted to die in their traces.  One did, according to my friend.  One morning the security guard found him slumped over his keyboard dead as a doornail.

No one admits that they want “He worked late at the office” chiseled on their tombstone, but I am sure that many workaholics secretly feel that it would be a good tribute.  A close friend of mine died suddenly, and I attended a ceremony organized in her honor.  One speaker after the other told of her remarkable proficiency at writing proposals, negotiating contracts, dealing with obstreperous clients.  They talked of her professional commitment as a nurse, her ability to work the medical system, and her way with numbers.  All this was said with knowing smiles intended to elicit knowing nods; but I was appalled.  This was all anyone could say?  I knew her as a passionate, outrageously funny, unrestrained, free and loving spirit.  No one else had noticed that?

Work was what defined all those convened in her honor, and I suppose they could only see my friend within the narrow confines of work. The ethos of the office in America is work – not the end product of the work, but the work itself – and it is easy to see how workaholics are the heroes of the battlefield. 

One of my favorite assignments as a consultant was to work with the Ministry of Health in Haiti. My job was to provide technical assistance to the Director of the Nutrition Division and help her plan, organize, and manage national programs. Work started at 10, and by 11:30 Dr. Saint-Pierre’s eyes started to glaze.  She was hungry and could no longer concentrate.  We broke for lunch and reconvened at 2:30.  By 4 her eyes again glazed over, and the day was done. What a windfall! My job was to work with the Director of Nutrition, and if she was there only four hours a day, so be it. I played  the ‘participatory, collaborative, culturally sensitive’ PC game for all it was worth. No one in Washington could complain.

I had a lovely breakfast by the pool, drove up to Petionville for a civilized lunch, returned to the Splendide for a long siesta, had early evening rum punches on the verandah of the Olaffson, and went dancing in Carrefour till late at night.

The best bosses combine intelligence, efficiency, social skills and political savvy.  They may occasionally spend more than 9-5 at the office, but only rarely; and they never work on weekends.  They pick the right people to work under them, instill trust and respect, orchestrate their staff with insight and discipline, intervene in delegated responsibility only when necessary, and let others do the heavy lifting.  One such woman was a very good friend of mine who had a comparable position to my sister’s boss.  In far less time, with more agility and respect from her staff, and with far greater output, she had calibrated her life perfectly.

It was clear from that limited sample that workaholics definitively don’t get more done than well-balanced managers.  They simply enjoy the bizarre world of frenetic multi-tasking.

In an article in The Atlantic (8.15.13) Jordan Weissmann notes that workaholism is being classified as a disease:

Research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. That’s to say nothing of its toll on family members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spouses of workaholics tend to report unhappiness with their marriages. Having a workaholic parent is hardly better. A study of college undergraduates found that children of workaholics scored 72 percent higher on measures of depression than children of alcoholics.

What is interesting but not surprising, the percentage of workaholics goes up with income and profession. Nearly 25 percent of doctors and lawyers are reported to be workaholics. While both professions are known to be demanding – many young lawyers are burnt to a crisp while scrambling to make Partner and interns topple over into chest cavities after 100 hour weeks – a true workaholic makes work.

In one of the rare economic studies on the subject, researchers found that the educated and affluent were much more likely than lower-income Americans to put off retirement, a possible sign of workaholism in action

In other words, these upper-level professionals could have quit work, but chose not to do so.  They liked flogging themselves and pulling the plow until exhaustion took them off.

The Weissmann article does not probe the cross-cultural aspects of workaholism.  One might expect the French to be less compulsive about work – the image of long winey lunches, cinq a sept trysts with hot mistresses, and work-free Augusts on the Riviera persists – but they may have reluctantly joined the Americanized international workplace.  Germans, we are told, are mechanically efficient, so we expect them to be intensely productive without a lot of peripatetic work-like dances.  Italians live la dolce vita, Latins are all about manana and la cultura de la hamaca, but these peoples may have finally buckled down.  The Japanese of course are known for their grueling work ethic.  Salary Men work so hard that they rent out miniature rooms near the office to grab a few hours sleep before returning to work early the next morning

For what it’s worth, the concept [workaholism] would not raise many eyebrows in Japan, where grueling job hours have long been a norm, and there’s a word for death by overwork—karoshi. The country’s courts have even recognized it as a basis for wrongful-death suits

Most of the younger people I know work punishing hours for low pay because they have to.  In jobs where supply far exceeds demand, companies can heap work on their minions and after burn-out can easily replace them.  As much as these colleagues wail about poor work-life balance, companies rarely did anything except make some cosmetic changes, and 12-hour days were common.  These minions were definitely not workaholics but slaves to a workaholic environment.

My career can best be described as a cottage industry and perhaps best described as a free-wheeling adventure.  Work was always a means to an end – travel, exotica, and romance – but I achieved the right balance.  Most importantly I am far less worse for wear than all the workaholic bosses with tremors and sleepless nights.  And I never toppled over dead on my keyboard.

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