In our society, work is important. For example, how often have you been at a party and the first question someone asks is “What do you do?”
Work, for most of us, is something that pays the bills and gives us the means to enjoy the fun things in life, like holidays and evenings out. But when a person’s work starts becoming the be-all and end-all of their existence, it’s a sign they’re turning into a workaholic.
Karen, who is divorced, recently moved from a small town to a large city company. When her boss asked her to work late in the evenings on an urgent project, Karen was pleased, seeing it as an opportunity to prove herself and show how reliable and diligent she was. She secretly hoped her efforts would land her a promotion. Her occasional overtime, however, soon became a habit and she found herself working long hours even after the project was completed and her promotion obtained. She found herself making excuses to stay late, while deep down the real reason was that she hated going home to an empty apartment.
Psychiatrist Joseph R Novello says, “More single people than married people tend to be workaholics as a defence against loneliness. They convince themselves that their work needs them because often nobody at home does. When they’re engrossed in work they don’t need to face up to a lonely reality.”
But workaholism also affects married people. Kathy suspected her husband Michael was becoming a workaholic when he started bringing work home from the office at night. She hardly ever saw him and their two children were becoming upset that their daddy spent less and less time with them.
Even holidays provided no escape. With her husband’s leave still not used up from two years before, Kathy planned an island vacation for them all, hoping it would bring the family closer together. But her plans were fraught with problems from the beginning. Michael was always putting off the departure date, and when they finally did leave, he spent most of the holiday working in the hotel room with his laptop computer or talking into his dictaphone on the beach. To top it all, after only a week of the two week vacation, he decided the office couldn’t function properly without him and promptly took the family home! It was then that Kathy decided they needed marriage counselling.
The answer, she found, was not to try to drastically change Michael or even to fight his workaholic tendencies. What she did do was learn to compromise and incorporate family time into her husband’s day. She scheduled a quiet leisurely dinner hour for the two of them in the evening and another hour after dinner for Michael to play with the children before they went to bed. After that, he had the rest of the evening free to work if he wanted to.
Sunday afternoons were reserved for “family time.” Vacations were still taken but Michael was allowed to take work down to the beach with him if he wished. In the meantime, Kathy would sunbathe or swim with the children. Michael did have to promise, however, that he wouldn’t take the family home early. Learning to accommodate her husband’s workaholism in this way was not easy for Kathy, but at least the children were able to see their father and future vacations were much less stressful than before. In addition, a part-time job of her own gave Kathy another interest outside the home and family.
What is it that turns a person into a workaholic? Often the problem stems back to childhood. While a healthy attitude toward work and getting ahead is good, when it starts to interfere with other areas of your life, it’s time to take stock of the situation.
Parents can often sow the seeds of workaholism in their children while they are young. Novello explains, “Often, without realising it, parents give off signals that they love their children not for who they are but for what they achieve. They encourage their children to strive for excellence. When the child does something right, he or she is praised, and, in that child’s eyes, loved.”
“Because the child gets the message that is it loved as long as it is achieving, it goes on trying to achieve. Ironically, once the child has achieved something, a sense of emptiness sets in and he or she goes on to something new to fill the emptiness, but all the time just clutching at straws.”
This phenomenon shows up primarily in eldest or only children. Since they are considered the standard bearers for the family, much is expected of them and they tend to grow up being “achievers.” It’s not surprising, for instance, that 20 out of the first 22 astronauts were eldest children. But they also tend to be tense and neurotic and have the highest rate of alcoholism.
Novello says, “When the eldest or only child becomes a leader he or she is often respected or feared, but seldom loved. Middle children, on the other hand, tend to be better loved and have more successful interpersonal relationships.”
Another factor that may result in workaholism is a lack of self-esteem. The message workaholics give to themselves is “nobody will feel I’m good enough if I don’t achieve.” This can make them vulnerable in later life, especially when it comes to retirement. Having put all their eggs in one basket by concentrating on work and having little social activity, they often feel they have nothing left and this can lead to severe depressions. A marriage that has worked may find itself in trouble.
When Caroline’s husband took early retirement from work, problems started for her at home. While Bill had always been a bit of a workaholic at the office, this didn’t bother Caroline, who was happy to run the household. Once he retired though, Bill started trying to take over Caroline’s “domain.” She soon realised that by putting him in charge of certain tasks, and making him feel useful, things would start to improve. When salespeople called, Caroline left Bill to deal with them. He was happy checking out details and finding out the best solutions for their needs, all of which kept him busy. When it came to holidays, she let him research the options available and plan the itinerary. It made Bill feel he was still making important decisions while letting Caroline accomplish her usual tasks.
Freud’s definition of a mentally healthy person is “someone who is able to love and able to work.” But what can you do if you work for a workaholic? Brenda worked for Margaret and recognised the symptoms of workaholism in her. Margaret was unable to delegate work and when she did she constantly checked what Brenda was doing and criticised even the smallest detail.
Novello says this latter tendency is a classic symptom of workaholism. “The workaholic has an imperfection in herself that she cannot accept. She then projects it onto a subordinate and criticises them instead.”
Margaret also expected Brenda to work long hours and couldn’t understand that she might have a social life. While she thought she was being a good leader, Margaret’s actions were in fact counterproductive, leaving Brenda feeling miserable and distrusted. As Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors, once said, “A good leader sets overall goals, creates enthusiasm, hires and retains good people then has the good sense to delegate and go home.”
But even if you can’t beat a workaholic boss, you can still play them at their own game. The important thing to remember is to keep your sense of humour. Try joking with them about the effect their workaholism is having on you, or even better, have a rational talk with them. At all costs, avoid a heated confrontation.
Then try to insist on goals. Keep it data-based. Insist on knowing what has priority and make a list (it’s what they like to do!). You can use the list to show what you’ve achieved: “I researched the details you needed on Project X. I did it by 3 pm then I started on the client list you wanted for Project Y.”
Don’t be intimidated and learn to say no when you must. Keep in mind, though, that all obsessive behaviour isn’t bad. After all, if you were about to take off in a plane, you’d appreciate a pilot who was obsessive about going over all 100 items on his security checklist and not just 99.
But what if the workaholic is you? There are several ways you can ease the pressure on yourself. First of all, identify and accept the problem as your own and make a point of scheduling in relaxation time. Take a long lunch hour once in a while, and learn to call overtime by its real name. Take the decision to keep weekends free and make Sunday a family day. All this won’t happen overnight, of course, but recognising the problem is the start to solving it.
One 85-year-old woman, a workaholic most of her life, was asked what she would change if she could live her life over again. She said, “I would make more mistakes and learn to relax. I would be silly more often, take more chances and eat more ice-]cream! I wouldn’t live ahead of each day. I wouldn’t carry around so much emotional baggage. I would travel much lighter.”