WORKING@LIFE - These are schizophrenic times. We juggle a love of hedonism with a puritanical work ethic. In this light, the phenomenon of work addiction begins to look so 'now' it's almost chic.

by HELEN WILKINSON, founder and CEO of
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

These are schizophrenic times. We juggle a love of hedonism with a puritanical work ethic. In this light, the phenomenon of work addiction begins to look so 'now' it's almost chic.

We live in a culture that, on the one hand, covertly celebrates its dysfunction - the self-destructiveness of many famous actors and musicians demonstrates how we tolerate, even admire, excess - and on the other hand berates those who give in to it. We live in bad health and worse spirits, a higher proportion of us depressed or stressed than ever before. Worse still, many of us might as well live in the office.

Think about it: the nudge and wink we give to City boys who take cocaine to survive insupportable working hours, as opposed to the opprobrium heaped on the alcoholic tramp who begs for drink money.

Now that therapy-speak is creeping into everyday English, more and more people are suddenly addicts. Whereas previously the only addictions perceived as such were those binding people to alcohol or drugs, many now consider themselves dependent on anything from chocolate to shopping to work, and any noun is fair game for the suffix -holic.

But is it really possible to be addicted to work? Or are we simply confusing the pressures and pleasures of the everyday with the despair that breeds real addictions? In some industries, punishing hours are seen as part of the job, particularly in project-based work: film crews working from dawn until late at night; an accountant fixing a client's accounts.

But how far can the idea of work addiction be taken? Can the reporters caught up in the macho culture of risk and overwork that characterises war journalism really be called workaholics? Would they even identify with the label? And would we mind if they downed tools and stopped reporting from around the globe?

It may be personality type that determines whether or not an individual succumbs to the false glamour of a stressful work schedule. Some people work better crammed up against a deadline. Others love their jobs to the extent that they forgo more relaxing pursuits for its sake. For others, work is a vocation, the place where they find fulfilment and meaning, and it can be all-consuming.

To such people, it may seem wrong to define a devotion to work as addictive behaviour. Many work-driven people look back on intense, stressful periods as the best times of their lives,when they forged lasting friendships and felt alive and indispensable. In a society that worships utility, that always has the questions 'How much? How quickly?' on its lips, it is easy to understand why work can fuel the sense of being useful.

But working too hard has its shadow side. Those who weave the web of work and life together so seamlessly that it is difficult to disentangle the two can become, in therapy speak, 'co-dependent'.

The relationship with work becomes like a dysfunctional love affair - it draws you in only to consume you, leaving you feeling empty and washed up. Ray Pahl's book After Success is full of tales of people in a post-success zone, standing on the top of the metaphorical mountain and telling us that the view is not so great after all.

The damaging effects of long working hours are more widely evident. Medical accidents have been caused by junior doctors' painfully long shifts, including, last year, the death of a hospitalised baby given 10 times as much painkiller as she required by a doctor made slapdash by exhaustion. Recent studies show that more road accidents are caused by tiredness than by alcohol.

More and more, people seem to be elevating their work life above their personal life; we talk about 'finding' time and 'making' time for our loved ones and our interests, even as we profess to want more work/life balance and flexible working: classic symptoms of a society in denial about the latent addiction it is nurturing.

Yet there are signs of change. The voices clamouring for a better work/life balance become more numerous. Governments and employers, as well as workers, talk about achieving it. More and more people are downshifting and seeking a more balanced and fulfilled way of life. More and more people who have, by society's standards, achieved professional success have found the power to define success on their own terms.

Technology too has the potential to save us. The internet allows more people to reorganise work from home, making possible more of a balance and integration between work and the rest of their lives. But the real test here will be to see if people take their addictive behaviour home with them or find the strength to leave it on the office desk.

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