We teach what we learn. Several weeks ago, I flew to Florida on a Sunday at dawn to collaborate with my business partner on a project related to our work helping executives counterbalance stress with recovery. We worked until late that night and resumed again early Monday morning, pushing hard until 2 PM, when I flew back home to New York. I worked on my laptop on the plane without ever looking up, made calls on my cell phone in the car while driving home from the airport, kissed my daughter hello when I arrived, and raced upstairs to respond to my accumulated email messages.
At 6 PM, I changed clothes, got back in my car, and sped to an important business dinner. It lasted until 10 PM, and on the way home, I called my partner by cell phone to debrief him. We were still talking as I pulled into my driveway. Intent on finishing the conversation before I went inside, I stayed in my car. His voice began to break up, so I got out of the car and began walking around to see if I could get a better connection. The next thing I knew, my car was rolling down our lawn, headed straight for a stone wall 30 feet away. Horrified, I began chasing the car as it ran over azaleas, hydrangeas, and rosebushes. At the last possible moment, I reached in and yanked the emergency brake. The car jerked to a halt just two inches from the stone wall.
I believe in the power of metaphor. When I recovered from my shock, the message seemed inescapably clear: I was on the verge of hitting the wall myself, and I had better pay attention. Ironically — or perhaps appropriately — I had decided even before the experience that I would write my next column about workaholism. As part of my research, I had arranged to attend a meeting of the only New York City chapter of Workaholics Anonymous. Three days after the encounter with my runaway car, I drove to a church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 8 AM — perhaps predictably, arriving a few minutes late.
There were 4 other people gathered around a basement table. You guessed it: Most workaholics don’t have the time to attend meetings. The group’s size hasn’t changed significantly since its founding a decade ago. Sure enough, as I was leaving, one of the participants turned to me. “Welcome to the French Resistance,” he said. “There are 5 million workaholics in New York, and you’ve just met the only 4 who are in recovery.”
It was amusing — but it may also be true.
“Overwork is this decade’s cocaine, the problem without a name,” argues psychotherapist Bryan Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them (New York University Press, 1998). Workaholism, Robinson says, is “an obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and an over-indulgence in work — to the exclusion of most other life activities.” The clearest indication, he argues, is simply the inability to turn work off. Robinson suggests that as much as 25% of the population qualify as workaholics — which would make the syndrome by far the country’s most common addiction. Moreover, Americans now work an average of 46 hours per week (52 hours per week if you include work at home), which is more than the citizens of any other country in the world.
I have been writing about this issue for two decades, in large part to try to get a handle on it in my own life. In 1983, I wrote an article called “Second Thoughts About Having It All,” at a time when my wife and many of our married friends felt more and more overwhelmed raising young children while also keeping up two busy careers. In 1988, I wrote a story about what I called “acceleration syndrome,” describing what I saw as people’s growing addiction to the speed, intensity, and relentless activity of their lives. In 1995, I wrote a book, What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America (Bantam Books, 1995), about people who were seeking something deeper and more meaningful in their lives. And of course, the columns I write for Fast Company focus on the ways that people are now trying to balance their work with the rest of their lives.
What I have never faced, I think, is the degree to which work truly is my drug of choice — and how much I live in its thrall. Let’s be clear: It doesn’t make sense to equate alcoholism with workaholism. There is absolutely nothing salutary, for one’s self or for others, about drinking to excess. Working to excess may have many insidious consequences, but it can also result in great productivity — and may even lead to major breakthroughs.
Indeed, the real problem with addressing workaholism is that it is not typically seen as a problem. Far from it. The syndrome is socially sanctioned, and in many cases, it is revered and rewarded. Robinson calls workaholism “the best-dressed problem of the 20th century.” Any culture inevitably pulls people toward its norms. Ours elevates those who work relentlessly and disdains those who are more laid-back. Working 24-7 is a badge of honor in the new economy. Those who embrace long hours and devotion to the workplace not only earn a special place in the ranks of the company, but they also frequently earn more money — which translates into even more approval in our culture.
Unfortunately, working 24-7 also takes a toll. When a sample of the children of self-described workaholics was studied, they turned out to have significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than children of non-workaholic parents. A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers cited preoccupation with work as one of the top four causes of divorce. Workaholics themselves evidence more destructive behavior: more alcohol abuse, more extramarital affairs, and more stress-related illnesses.
Of course, like most workaholics I know, I am quick with rationalizations. To wit: I have to earn a living, and it isn’t easy in competitive times such as these. There is nothing wrong with working hard. I’m not about to become a slacker or sacrifice my standards. I love what I am doing, so it doesn’t really feel like work. I believe that what I do can make a real difference in people’s lives.
But what finally dawned on me the evening that I chased my car across my lawn was a subtler distinction. There is a difference between commitment and compulsion, between passion and obsession. I don’t drink, do drugs, smoke, or even drink coffee. But I am both obsessive and compulsive about work. Technology, meant to make life easier, has only fueled this fire, eliminating the boundaries between work and the rest of my life, making it harder than ever to let go fully. I check my email early in the morning, throughout the day, and again late at night. I also talk on my cell phone while I’m driving, take my laptop on airplanes and vacations, and wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work. And everyone around me seems to be doing the same thing.
In my defense, I have built a series of rituals into my life to assure that I don’t work all the time. I go out to dinner with my 15-year-old daughter once a week. I have a weekly date night with my wife, and we spend a couple of inviolate hours together on Saturday mornings. I volunteer as a Big Brother. I run or lift weights most days. But none of those things changes the fact that I spend the vast majority of my waking hours working or that whenever I am away from my desk, I feel an overwhelming pull back to it. I find it next to impossible to let go of work fully and so do many of the people I know: men above all, but increasingly women as well. And almost none of them sees it as a problem.
So what exactly is the problem? One way to see it more clearly is to do a little self-diagnostic exercise: Make a list of important aspects of your life — work, family, friendship, health, service to others, relaxation. On a scale from 1 to 10, how much does each one matter? Now, on the same scale, how much time and energy are you devoting to each one? Do you, like me, find that you value virtually all of those areas of your life highly — but give vastly more time and energy to your work than you give to others?
Strip away the rationalizations for a moment. Is there some incongruency — even denial — going on here? Do you overschedule yourself? Do you frequently feel rushed or impatient? Do you multitask, splitting your attention among several activities? Are you frequently exhausted in the evenings? Do you have stress-related symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems, back pain, or shortness of breath? Do thoughts about work preoccupy you even when you’re not working?
What about your family? Are you really devoting significant, uninterrupted time to your spouse? To your children? Do they feel that they get enough of your attention? How much energy do you devote to friends? Are there any regular times when you spend quiet time alone? When you deeply relax? Do you have much fun in your life?
The question that I’ve begun asking myself is, What exactly makes work so seductive? The answers are sobering. Both of my parents were clearly workaholics, and I grew up knowing no other way. I get an adrenaline high from working and a certain restlessness and uneasiness sets in when I stop for long. Dare I call it “withdrawal”? I deeply love my family, but like so many men I know, I feel more competent at work than I do in other parts of my life, including in the relationships with those who are closest to me.
So what to do? What not to do? My near-wall encounter convinced me that I need to be even more vigilant about building periods of recovery into my life — about creating clearer and firmer boundaries. My challenge is to work smarter rather than longer and to resist technology’s seductive call to stay forever connected. As the Workaholics Anonymous literature simply but trenchantly suggests, I have to resist adding any new activity in my life without also subtracting an existing one that requires equal time and energy. Put bluntly, I have to be prepared to make some choices and some sacrifices in the service of my deeper values.
Ultimately, the challenge is not mine alone. So long as our culture rewards and reveres those who work endless hours, and denies that there is anything costly about such choices, any individual attempts to shift the balance will remain an uphill battle. Might it be time, inside and outside corporate America, to question systematically whether the benefits outweigh the costs of permitting work to occupy more and more of our lives?
Tony Schwartz is the author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America (Bantam Books, 1995).