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March 2000 Issue
Are You an Eager Workaholic, or Just a Victim of Abuse?
by Michael Fick
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There are workaholics, and there are workaholics. One type feels an inner compulsion to work all the time, loves every minute of it, and is at inner peace with this obsession. The other is -- or thinks s/he is -- a victim of external pressures to work all the time, and is a likely candidate for inner conflict that may affect his/her health. Let's distinguish between them and see if the latter's inner conflict might be reduced. After all, the latter type -- by definition -- wants to resolve his/her affliction, or would want to if aware resolution is possible.

The healthy type absolutely loves to work all his/her waking hours, whether for a family as a full-time parent, at the expense of a neglected family, or instead of having a family. This type of workaholic -- by definition -- has a mentally healthy outlook towards constant work because s/he's not in internal conflict. S/he just blithely does what s/he wants to do -- work -- regardless of other obligations. Many of them throw money at problems or family to make them disappear. Life is simple ... for them.

The latter type of workaholic works like a mutt 60-80-100 hours a week at distasteful jobs because s/he thinks it's necessary. They're the ones that put the negative connotation in the term "workaholic", because rather than thriving on work and preferring it to all other activities, they dislike or even hate it but have or perceive some external or internal compulsion to do it. The pressure and conflict disrupt their mental and physical health and their families.

Some workaholics of this type feel the extra status, pay and possessions that may accompany long hours are worth sacrificing the important aspects of life for. They may think their spouse and kids prefer their presents to their presence, or measure success in terms of possessions rather than freedom to do what they enjoy. Some refuse medical help for their clinical obsession with work, and for the physical problems the conflict triggers. Many feel they are defined by their title or job, rather than by what they are. Some feel compelled to work evenings and weekends simply because there's always more work to be done.

Are you that type of workaholic ... the unwilling victim? Do you feel obliged to your employer to work all the time? Do you wish you had time to do what you most want to do each week, season, or year? Did you miss your kid's home run, first prom preparations, even her graduations? Do you spend more time in a three-piece suit or a company tee shirt than in your jeans and sweatshirt or your exercise togs; more time with the guys at the office than with the family you chose and created? Wouldn't you rather be skiing, fishing, or gardening with your spouse or watching your daughter play soccer than sitting in a late meeting or fixing customers' widgets all weekend? Are your family finances -- insurance, investments, budget planning -- in disarray because you have no time to research and manage them? Is your basement dream workshop still just an empty hole in the ground?

Do you actually believe your kid gives a hoot that you earned a few extra bucks or brownie points while skipping his soccer playoffs? Do you think your daughter's graduation Porsche matters more to her than your participation in her life? Does your spouse really prefer that fancy home to your company? If you think the things you provide are more important to your family than your active participation in their lives, either you're out of touch with them ... or your negligence leaves them no alternative.

If self-employed, would you really cut back to normal hours if the business started making good money? If your day were increased to 28 hours and your week to eight days, would you go really home and tend to the important stuff in your life or would you just work more hours?

60 hours every week for 40 hours' pay? Ridiculous. Abusive. Unwarranted. Unfair to you and your family. Your boss saw you coming. There's a sucker born every minute. Or maybe you impose it on yourself to escape family problems you should face head-on.

Unless you are single, swamped by financial obligations beyond your control, love your work, have no outside interests, and making big money for overtime, why work all the time? We're all going to die long before we find time to do all the things we really want to do, so why not make time to do most of them by adjusting our priorities?

Try it. Just by working reasonable hours, you will effectively add a few hours to each day and a day to your weekends, giving you more time to do all of that stuff presently below your reality threshold. Most of the things you need to change to cut back to something resembling the 8-5 job you signed up for are under your control.

Work more effectively and efficiently. Cut out the bull sessions. Inform your boss (and his boss if necessary) that you're not taking this abuse any longer. Lodge a formal complaint. Tell the company you expect to do your business travel on weekdays for a change, as is done in civilized companies. Walk out the door soon after quitting time like your well-adjusted coworkers do. Walk out the door to another company if you have to; your pension is probably portable and demand in many fields is so sky-high that switching jobs can bump your pay by 10-20% overnight. There's probably a better job out there anyway.

If your problem is workload, finish your work by quitting time, accept less work, and/or realize that working late never changes anything, that there's always more work to do. Learn to distinguish real emergencies from blatant abuse inflicted by management or by yourself, so you'll be more willing to burn midnight oil once in a great while. Invoke the 80/20 rule more often, ignoring or pencil-whipping the office tasks at the bottom of your priority list. Your obligation to your family usually exceeds your obligation to the firm after the 40-hour mark, even if you're on an annual salary. The fact that the firm bought the first 40 hours from you and your family gives the firm zero rights to the next 40; that's yours to donate in real emergencies when you choose. And the operative word in "your vacation time" is "your".

NASA, Boeing, DuPont, and especially the Air Force swamped us with many tasks. That was good for the organization, for the customer, and for us employees, because it meant we always had work to do even if a couple of tasks were held up by things genuinely beyond our control. By insuring there always is more work to be done, it kept us always productive and always looking for ways to work smarter. That's efficient management: who's going to work harder if their work is always done by quitting time? Who's going to work efficiently and stay stoked about their work if their workload is so light they can get everything done every day? And what person with any self-respect and any options is going to let a company or a boss abuse him or her chronically, family or no family?

What's the worst that could happen if you worked more rational hours? So you might miss a choice assignment because you refused to work 70 hours a week routinely. So you might miss the extra 20% you got by working like a mutt all year (you did get extra pay for the abuse, didn't you?). So your coworkers kowtow to this abuse. So there's always too much work. So ... so WHAT!? Aren't your personal life, your health and your family much more important than some silly ten percent promotion? Increasing legislation against forced OT in some states should tell us something about others' resentment of it.

"But we need all that money!", cry many workaholics who get paid for OT. That's occasionally true in dire circumstances, but is more often simply an excuse for one's obsession, or the result of overspending in the first place. It's simple arithmetic: only those who spend less than their income can get rich.

Taking time for financial planning and management can more than offset overtime pay, and the financial management benefit keeps on paying and paying and paying. One of my first tasks after retiring was finally getting our insurance and investments on track. By taking time for some analysis, I cut our insurance costs by 72% while tripling our coverage, and improved our annual investment returns from 80% losses to >25% gains.

And what about your health? Picture yourself wired into cardiac intensive care at age 65, on the cell phone with the boss, and wishing you'd taken the family to Disneyland last year as the cardiologist grimly tells your family, "Better prepare to get along without him". Picture your family asking the doc in response, "So what's new?" Then picture a better-rounded 65-year-old beating his kids and grandkids in hard, aggro tennis.

The choice between those scenarios is often, maybe usually, ours. Not the boss's, not fate, not luck. Ours.

Go home. You earned your vacation years ago, you earned a game of volleyball by 5:00, and your family earns your attention every day by living and breathing.



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