Message from a recovering workaholic
A recovering workaholic shares a warning message
Working long hours for extended periods and the sacrifice culture has been a part of our workplace landscape for years. Only recently has it come under the microscope and considered to be a sign of madness or certifiable behaviour, and stopped being a badge of honour. I would describe myself as a recovering workaholic. But there is no 12 step process, no support group, and no sponsor system.
If I had done drugs, drank too much, or had an eating disorder, friends would have staged an intervention or suggested therapy. They did eventually (the few I hadn’t alienated) but only when I was on the point of collapse, my marriage was on the rocks and my children ran to our nanny before me. As a recovering workaholic, I am in a category that gets no sympathy at all and there is always a risk I can backslide.
Downsides of workaholism
Research overwhelmingly supports the idea that workaholism has negative personal consequences. In 2014, Malisssa Clark led a comprehensive meta-analysis summarizing the findings of 89 primary studies and found workaholism was related to lower job, family, and life satisfaction as well as worse physical and mental health. In a more recent study, researchers found workaholism was linked to higher systolic blood pressure and greater levels of mental distress one year later.
The World Health Organization (WHO), indicates that long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people a year. The first global study showed 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease due to long hours. “The research found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.”
Of that number 25% were women and 75% were men. “While the study did not cover the period of the pandemic, WHO officials said the recent jump in remote working and the economic slowdown may have increased the risks associated with long working hours.
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No one wanted me to stop
Being a workaholic is part of our system. Bosses loved me. They needed me to get their numbers. Not one person wanted me to give up being a workaholic. I made them money. It’s considered a male trait, but women embrace it too. We’re the “having it all” brigade. These women have families, full-on professional lives with six-figure salaries. Our husbands like that, until they feel neglected and seek solace elsewhere. We get up at zero funny hours to make brownies for the school bake sale. Mothers can spot store-bought baked goods at ten paces. That would never do. Motherhood is a jungle. Our homes are impeccable, mainly because they are run by someone else.
Workaholics all have different drivers. There are many reasons. For women, I would say it’s more about the need to be perfect, to want to micro-manage everything, fear of failure, how we measure our self-worth, and our desperate neurotic need for recognition and validation. For men, it’s perhaps about winning and being the best.
In our businesses, we fall into the “go the extra mile” track and ” going above and beyond.” We make all deadlines. We tell people with a smile, we only had two hours of sleep because we are proud of this. As we are saying this we genuinely think it’s OK! We don’t see the looks of pity or confusion. Our teams know these rules apply to them too. People who do their jobs well, but don’t fall into this category we consider to be slackers. Nothing is said, but it’s that unspoken eye contact between the go-getters as Todd or Margie leave to pick up the kids. You know the one right?
We think we are indispensable
Our teams dread us. We email at midnight and really do expect a response by dawn at the latest. Your kid’s sick. Get help. You’re sick. Suck it up. In organizations that thrive and reward over-work, they allow that person to go on until they hit rock bottom. Then they replace them. They may send some flowers or give a few months leaving bonus. But we are dispensable, even though we kid ourselves that we are not.
During the pandemic when schools closed, and domestic support wasn’t allowed in, my boss expected the same level of output as before. Hell, I did too. But I was running on fumes and eventually, those fumes evaporated as fumes tend to. We had home-schooling, a mountain of laundry, a yard that looked like a wildlife reserve and my once pristine home was now a health hazard.
I missed a deadline. I had been up until 0500 working on the project. The kids wake up at 0600. In a breakfast meeting, my boss said I needed to “get your head back in the game.” Seven words that changed my life. Probably not his.
I don’t really remember what happened. I think I paused. My mind was blank I remember nothing. Maybe I squinted and shook my head. I then told him four words that would eventually save me and my family “F$ck you. I quit.”
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What can I tell you? I am a recovering workaholic in therapy. Even now I probably work long hours by some standards, but I have clear boundaries and early warning systems set up with my family and therapist. My marriage and kid are my priority. I am a work in progress.
This writer has signed an NDA agreement with her organisation. She is based in New York.
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