Southern California is known for its laid-back style, but the men and women who live here seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere. Freeway drivers honk at your heels to get from point A to point B on time, friendships are online only, and the terms “I don’t have time” and “I’m too busy” are thrown around as casually as the next Facebook post. The line between our professional and personal lives has all but vanished. Hard work is now intertwined with workaholism, a condition that comes with its own set of negative, sometimes destructive aftereffects. In fact, the term “workaholic” was coined in the 1960s to describe individuals who overworked to the point of inefficiency. The real term is closely associated with compulsive drug and alcohol addiction behaviors. Therefore, workaholism is not the same as hard work.
In psychologytoday.com clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara Killinger defines workaholism as “a soul-destroying addiction that changes people’s personality and the values they live by. It distorts the reality of each family member, threatens family security and often leads to family break-up. Tragically, workaholics eventually suffer the loss of personal and professional integrity.”
She goes on to describe a workaholic as “a work-obsessed individual who gradually becomes emotionally crippled and addicted to power and control in a compulsive drive to gain approval and public recognition of success.”
To put it simply, no one or nothing else matters.
Contrastingly so, hard workers maintain a clear line between work mode and leisure. They make time for friends, family, socializing, and take a breather or two on their days off. Because they’ve mastered a balanced and organized lifestyle, they are in turn more efficient workers than workaholics, and the ideal candidate for employers. But how do employers distinguish the two, and more importantly how do you know if you or a loved one is afflicted with such a condition? Excessive hours in the office and superfluous voluntary tasks are but the slightest of symptoms.
According to Killinger, “A hard worker who is emotionally present for all family members, co-workers and friends, and who manages to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal responsibility is not a workaholic. Any periodic burst of overworking in order to meet an important deadline or an emergency situation needs to be purposely followed by a reduced schedule or days off to restore depleted resources. Workaholics, in contrast, lack this wisdom.”
“They are obsessed with their work performance and hooked on an adrenalin-high. Bent on self-aggrandizement, these ego-driven folks reach one goal, and immediately set another more ambitious one. Staying at the same level of accomplishment is considered a failure.”
Projectknow.com is a website that aims to inform and guide the loved ones of individuals with addiction problems. According to the site, work addiction is a serious behavioral problem. The site lists noticeable signs:
Preoccupation with work; constant thoughts or even discussions about work issues at inappropriate times
Withdrawal from social activities
Loss of interest in hobbies or other enjoyable activities
Working despite a need for sleep or even food
Working when extremely tired or even when ill
Loss of ability to relax
Inability to trust colleagues or subordinates to do work that they can perform on your behalf
The worst part of this kind of work addiction is that it usually backfires. Projectknow reports that when work becomes an obsession rather than a means to achieving a goal, it blocks out any sense of proportion and reality. “This can damage personal relationships, as a work addict is so absorbed in work that relationships become immaterial or even a nuisance. A work addict often becomes extremely irritable, which can, ironically, cause trouble in the workplace, as colleagues, supervisors and clients find themselves unable to deal with the workaholic.”
Work addiction also has negative health effects. The site reports that work addicts risk developing physical illnesses that are tied to stress, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and digestive disorders. Work addiction can also trigger serious and disabling mental illnesses, including depression and suicidal tendencies.
Being among those that tread in the grey area of this dangerous realm, I cannot help but to find interest in others’ rationale for working so much. I did not realize how much I worked until my peers constantly highlighted my busy schedule as the reason for my lacking in so many other things. The birthday dinner last night, a boyfriend, a proper diet, friends, sleep, a boyfriend. Did I mention a boyfriend? Apparently, I was the reason for my single status and I had failed to realize the crumbling of my original goals and my growing apathy toward everyone around me.
I was called a hard ass and cold-hearted bitch more frequently. Why do I allow what most people would consider torture or even a death sentence to consume me? Let’s just put it this way: if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s self destruction, and if there’s one thing I’m better at, it’s hiding it. And frankly, I haven’t found a good enough reason to change.
And I am not alone. Cameron Wagstaff, 21, spends 40 hours a week managing associates at a bike shop and fills his free time with cycling and immersion in the car scene. But Wagstaff doesn’t see his schedule as a form of workaholism. “It makes me feel good. With this line of work, I see it as a chance to get what I want. Emotionally, I’m fine for the most part. My bike rides keep me feeling well emotionally, and I’m not really one who’s putting their heart out. Mentally, I’m comfortable; I know what I want. Every day of working hard just puts me one step closer. Physically, I have to keep riding. Without it, I lose my confidence in me physically.”
However, Reuben Towns, 23, is juggling two jobs at a supermarket and In-N-Out burgers, averaging about 70 hours a week. Towns said he works like this because he wants better in life for his family. “I do it for not only my family but for myself to not only become the man my family needs but the one I always wanted to be,” said Towns. “I know I have to make sacrifices and I need to do them young.”
But his rigorous lifestyle has yielded various highs and lows that have brought valuable lessons to his attention. In November of 2012, his exhausting lifestyle became destructive to his relationship with his girlfriend. Long hours had him looking forward to nothing but sleep, and with no time to unwind, he grew irritable and fights became frequent. Dates were flaky, family dinners were cancelled, and even on his days off he would choose sleep over quality time spent with friends and family.
“I feel that it hurt me because I was the problem, for being distant and just focusing on my future,” Towns said. While he claims to have workaholic behaviors, he said he has found meaning and purpose through his career-driven choices. Towns added that, “working has helped me get out of debt, move into my own apartment, and still somewhat helps me afford the things in life I want to do.”
For centuries men have been deemed providers and expected to work long excruciating hours. Despite some thought that a rise in female workers has made this a thing of the past, it seems this expectation is engrained in American culture. Brenda Lopez, a 23-year-old biology and philosophy major at Mt. San Antonio College, said that this idea dates back to the Industrial Revolution when American males were expected to work like machines to fuel the economic interests of the time. “That has always been something that as a country gives us pride,” Lopez said. “Since we are so young as a country in comparison with the rest of the world, we as Americans view hard consistent monotonous paying the bills on time, work as patriotism.”
Lopez witnessed her uncles using work to escape distress during a time when her mother battled cancer. As a result, her family business had never undergone a more thriving phase. “Work becomes an escape with a solid validation because they’re providing for the family so no one ever calls people out on it,” Lopez said.
Peggy Olson on AMC’s Mad Men, played by actress Elisabeth Moss
Over the past few decades, however, productivity has seeped into the feminine paradigm. Take a look at the character Peggy Olson played by actress Elisabeth Moss on the hit show Mad Men. Her workaholic tendencies stem from her rising professional stardom in a male-reigning game. To get ahead, she adopts “masculine” characteristics and loses her identity. The office is her life and governs her thoughts and conversations. Eventually her hazy distinction between the workplace and self image is what contributes to smoking, drinking, unemotional sex, and doomed romances. Her complex persona demonstrates the detrimental nature that originates from hard work and marks a transcendence into other demographics.
However things are much different today. Few women have the luxury of staying home and taking care of the house and children, a classic portrayal of women in shows from the 1950s such as Leave it to Beaver and I Love Lucy. Today, women in the workforce are often juggling a career and the responsibility of caring for the home. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate—the percent of the population working or looking for work—for all mothers with children under age 18 was 69.9 percent in 2013. The participation rate for married mothers with a spouse present was 67.8 percent. Married mothers were about as likely to be employed as mothers with other marital statuses, with employment population ratios of 64.5 percent and 65.3 percent, respectively.
One such example is 25-year-old Athena Robinson who has two young children, Clair, 4, and Ricky, 2. Robinson, a nutrition science major, is currently attending Mt. San Antonio College and is heavily involved in various groups and organizations. “I do work with the Caduceus club, and will shortly be doing paid research for a professor in addition to taking classes,” said Robinson. “With everything I try to do, I would say [I work] between 35 and 45 hours a week, including class.”
Although Robinson works to provide better for her two children the long hours have taken a toll on the time she gets to spend with Clair and Ricky. “During the week, I tend to see my kids around one hour in the morning getting them ready for school and then one to two hours in the evening, when I eat with them and get them ready for bed,” Robinson said.
However, she does her best to make up for the lack of time spent with her children. “Fortunately, most of the time that I am away from them they are at a school that allows them a significant amount of play and socialization time. I do my best to make up time lost during the week over the weekend.”
Despite the time she is sacrificing now to pursue her career and education, Robinson said she knows it will all be worth it in the long run. “I am working hard at school and in other volunteer and research capacities right now, so after I graduate I have a better chance of getting into grad school to provide a better life for my kids than I can now.”
For working moms like Robinson, the term workaholic is just another word for working hard and trying to create a comfortable lifestyle for their families. But for many working young parents, the expense of taking vacations makes it nearly impossible.
But what about workaholics who have the means to take a vacation but don’t? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that approximately three-quarters of all U.S. employees in the private sector get paid time off, and yet, American workers still don’t take advantage of their paid time off. A study conducted by Robert Half, an independent research firm, interviewed 436 adults working in an office environment and uncovered the top reasons why two in five people do not use all their paid time off. About 38 percent responded they were “saving days in case they need them later,” while 30 percent responded that they worry about falling behind at work. The remaining respondents said they do not like taking time off.
The reality is that employees who do not take vacation time are losing money. A study conducted by Oxford Economics, found that American workers lost $52.4 billion due to unused vacation time in 2013. In addition to losing money, they are also becoming less productive. The New York Times reported a study conducted by Harvard in 2013 that concluded that spending more hours at work often leads to insufficient sleep that takes a toll on performance. Researchers found that sleeping less than six hours a night resulted in job burn-out. They study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.
So why are employees not taking time off? Most responded that they were afraid of what would happen. Christopher Anderson, a 29-year-old full time store manager and part time business student, said, “I don’t want to take time off and then come back to find out that someone has taken over my position.” Anderson doesn’t consider himself a workaholic but admits to working in excess of 50 hours per week at his job and studying on all his off hours. “It’s no longer a matter of being a workaholic; it’s more of being a realist,” Anderson said. “If you want to get ahead today, you have to work your ass off because someone who is willing to work harder is waiting to take your job. There just isn’t room for fun anymore.”
Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.