What Defines a Workaholic?

I learned something new today via this short piece in The Atlantic.

Wayne Oates, who published 57 books in his lifetime, coined/invented the word workaholic in 1968. While there still isn’t a standard medical definition of a workaholic, Jordan Weissman digests some papers on the subject:

What, precisely, qualifies someone as a workaholic? There’s still no single accepted medical definition. But psychologists have tried to distinguish people merely devoted to their careers from the true addicts. A seminal 1992 paper on how to measure the condition argued that sufferers work not only compulsively but also with little enjoyment [1]. Newer diagnostic tests attempt to single out those who, among other behaviors, binge and then suffer from withdrawal—just as someone would with, say, a gambling or cocaine habit [2].

Even as the precise outlines of workaholism remain a bit fuzzy, various studies have tried to identify its physical and emotional effects. At the risk of carrying on like a Pfizer ad: research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression [3]. That’s to say nothing of its toll on family members. Perhaps unsurprisingly, spouses of workaholics tend to report unhappiness with their marriages [4]. Having a workaholic parent is hardly better. A study of college undergraduates found that children of workaholics scored 72 percent higher on measures of depression than children of alcoholics. They also exhibited more-severe levels of “parentification”—a term family therapists use for sons and daughters who, as the paper put it, “are parents to their own parents and sacrifice their own needs … to accommodate and care for the emotional needs and pursuits of parents or another family member” [5].

How many people are true workaholics? One recent estimate suggests that about 10 percent of U.S. adults might qualify [6]; the proportion is as high as 23 percent among lawyers, doctors, and psychologists [7]. Still more people may be inclined to call themselves workaholics, whether or not they actually are: in 1998, 27 percent of Canadians told the country’s General Social Survey that they were workaholics, including 38 percent of those with incomes over $80,000 [8]. (Even among those with no income, 22 percent called themselves workaholics! Presumably some were busy homemakers and students.)

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(via Andrew Sullivan)

David Graeber on the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

David Graeber is a professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In a must-read, thought-provoking post titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” he explains how the majority of workers these days are stuck in meaningless jobs:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

So what happened as a result of global automation?

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

So was Keynes wrong? No, argues David Graeber, in this humorous paragraph:

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

On meeting people with bullshit jobs in real life:

In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely.

On the perverse notion that this status quo should endure:

It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

A must-read in its entirety. Thought-provoking.

In Praise of Laziness

Very good piece in The Economist on disruptions, endless meetings, and pointless tasks. Many people mistake being busy for being productive, whereas they’re often not correlated!

Yet the biggest problem in the business world is not too little but too much—too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness. The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: they talk of vergaderziekte, “meeting sickness”. However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is e-mails: it found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them.

Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

All this “leaning in” is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.

Not just business people, but everyone would be better off if they did less and thought more.