Workaholism: the Revered ‘Ism’

tired businessmanIt is not uncommon for people to be putting in 80 or more hours of work each week. These people are often the first ones in the office in the morning and the last ones to leave at night. They may spend a good bit of their weekends working, too. Even on very occasional vacations, their cell phones and laptops are their constant companions. They rarely sleep more than a few hours each night. Despite attempts to squeeze in time with family and friends, they are often disconnected from the people they care about the most. They may struggle to remember the last time they saw the inside of a gym, and never seem to be able to carve out the time for a check-up with their doctors.

These people position work at the center of their lives and allow it to take up so much space that it prevents them from taking care of themselves and maintaining relationships. Yet, the feedback they get from colleagues and bosses tends to go something like this: “Wow, what a hard worker,” or, “You are so driven and dedicated.” Yet, if these people placed drinking at the center of their lives and allowed it to take up so much space that it prevented them from taking care of themselves and maintaining relationships, people may say things like, “How sad, you are throwing your life away,” or, “You are such a mess.”

While workaholism and alcoholism may share some negative outcomes, they are viewed very differently; workaholism is respected and revered, while alcoholism is derided and pathologized. Workaholism is complicated because, unlike alcoholism, there is a very real and tangible upside to it. Workaholism can result in a faster-than-average climb to the top of ladder, bigger bonuses, larger salaries, and greater benefits. All of these direct benefits create another layer of benefits—living in a nice, spacious home in the neighborhood of your choice, access to the highest quality of health care, the best schools and extracurricular opportunities for your children, and the ability to get your children through college without being burdened by debt.

To further complicate things, some professions seem to not only reward workaholism, but view it as a prerequisite. Professionals in such fields may feel powerless to take control over their schedules and carve out time for themselves. In some fields, professional advancement and a rich personal life really do seem to be mutually exclusive. So, what are you to do if you are deeply passionate about work that is situated within such a profession? Are you faced with a choice between work that you love and a humane schedule that allows you to take care of yourself and have healthy relationships?

Even the larger political climate sends the message that people must work as much as humanly possible. Part of the backlash against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is connected to the projections that people will work less as a result of the options the legislation creates. For example, take a couple comprised of an entrepreneur and a full-time employee who counts on his/her company’s insurance plan for the family’s coverage. Both have very demanding work, put in many hours, and struggle to find time to spend with their children. The ACA may provide an affordable health insurance option unconnected to employment, thus giving this family options. They may now be able to have the full-time employee drop back to part time, or even leave the job altogether and join the entrepreneur’s endeavors, potentially resulting in both people having to work fewer hours while moving the entrepreneurial endeavors forward more quickly. Why is this a problem? What is the benefit of creating a society where health, family, friends, and leisure time are consistently subjugated in favor of work?

There are no easy answers here. The cultural value for work, which was once positive, has been perverted into an extreme sport resulting in people glued to their work and/or cell phones 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With an issue so systemic, it is necessary to look to advocacy efforts to change things and to look for whatever power you have on an individual level. Thinking creatively, talking about the issues openly, and even partnering with a therapist (perhaps one who specializes in career counseling) to help you come up with a course of action are some good places to start.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC, Person Centered / Rogerian Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • doug

    May 1st, 2014 at 2:35 PM

    If you have ever been in the situation where this was expected of you by the people you work for then you would see that it shouldn’t be so revered. Many of us are workaholics not because this is what we aspire to be, but we know that to keep our jobs and to stay on that track with forward momentum then we have to be. It isn’t good for any of us, for the family or for the kids, but then you weigh the positives and the negatives and you see that for the kids to go to their private schools and for you to live in a gated community and drive the nice cars then there has to be the trade off. For me it is work and I know that I am not in a place financially right now to say that I have had enough of it. So you sacrifice the time for the things.

  • cole

    May 2nd, 2014 at 3:43 AM

    Yes, work does seem to be valued above most all other things, but you have to stop and wonder sometimes is all of that reverence really worth the losing out in other aspects of your life?

  • Gena

    May 2nd, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    It doesn’t seme like it would be worth all the stress but at the same time when there are bills thet have to/ need to be paid, then it starts looking a little different.

  • Tanner

    May 3rd, 2014 at 4:39 AM

    Why? Isn’t one addiction or compulsion just as bad as the next? Is that where our priorities are now, that these are the things that will be rewarded and there are other things that are deemed to be “worse” and those are looked on with derision and contempt? You know what is bad about this? These are people who are blatantly choosing work over everything else in their lives- their friends, their families, their life outside of work. Nothing is as important to them or ranks high enough with them other than those jobs. Are these the kind of people who deserve our praise? They need help just like any other addict out there.

  • michaela

    May 5th, 2014 at 3:39 AM

    I have become so accustomed to the workaholic home that it would seem strange to me to have it any other way. My husband works all the time, but he provides for us and we have a good life so how can I complain about that? He is there for the kids when he needs to be and we don’t wnat for anything. If he enjoys what he does, then again, who is to complain?

  • Amy Armstrong

    May 5th, 2014 at 6:42 AM

    Since I am a therapist who specializes in career counseling, this article immediately caught my eye. In discussing workaholism, I am referring to people who are truly addicted to work, not those who are working for a slave driver who will fire them if they don’t fall in line. Some employees just can’t miss a day of work, even if they are sick and their doctor is begging them to stay home and rest. Like any addiction, everyone has something different they are running away from. When work becomes a compulsion that someone uses to escape from family and friends or avoid connecting with people who know them well, that is when it becomes pathological. Working long hours to make partner at a law firm or earn overtime to put your kid through school is understandable and shows connection to another life role. Workaholism tends to separate the person from all other roles until it’s just the worker and her work.

  • Andrew

    May 10th, 2014 at 6:29 AM

    My experience is a little like Doug’s: while hard work and dedication are mainstays in any position I’ve filled, I’ve been in business cultures where 13-15 hour days were expected, as well as putting in 5 hours on both days of the weekend. One interviewee was ridiculed after she left the interview for not having the right attitude because she indicated she was looking for a “work-life balance.”

    Moving into a new job or even a new industry often requires this level of work in order to sharpen skills and gain experience and broaden an education in a category.

    My personal thought is that sometimes this is a price I may have to pay for the short term, but for me, at least, it’s untenable.

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