Recently, I had this career planning workshop for high-performing young female researchers. We talked about many things like time management, finding our values, preventing burnout and so on. But one very common theme, at least for me, was the question of “work life balance” (a bad term actually) and something which emerged around it: I want to call it the assumption of ‘innate workaholism’ in this post.
What do I mean by ‘innate workaholism’?
Most of these high-performing successful women from the workshop felt like “I can’t not check my emails during a holiday” or “There just is so much work where I’m needed” but also didn’t see that it’s really a mentality issue they have and that this behaviour is probably something they were socialized into. They argued that “No, it’s not a problem: I think it’s more a question of personality. I have always been like that.” Well, yes, maybe you have. Or have you really? Have you really been like this as a small child? If you think and listen closely, can’t you determine the first time you did this? Why did this behaviour serve you at the time? In this post I want to argue that I think it is dangerous to embrace the assumption that workaholism is a character trait. I say it is a behaviour instilled in us by socialization and the societal pressure of what has been called ‘the busy bandwagon’.
The societal problem of the ‘busy bandwagon’
Have you ever heard an obvious workaholic justify themselves by stating that they it’s not a systemic problem that overwork is the societal norm and systemically encouraged but much rather, it’s supposed to be a question of “personality type”? In the American discourse, workaholics would be called “type A” personalities. That this is a cultural construct becomes obvious already in the fact that I wouldn’t know how to translate this to German without using some New Age Denglish terminology. Denglish, by the way, is a term for German-English, the fact that many English words become part of German vocabulary or become ‘germanised’ (eingedeutscht). In fact, studies have actually shown that this concept of popular psychology is actually bogus; see here (de) and here (en). If you don’t remember where you’ve already heard the term “busy bandwagon” before, you might want to check out the review of Make Time and my digital minimalism project of last year again.
Workaholism as an addiction
In this workshop, I was reminded a lot of some Mel Robbins audiobooks I had been listening to (they’re like coaching sessions). So she will coach a person with a specific problem and then explain the point in a larger perspective. Many of those are audio only and you can’t get them as “real books”. Especially relevant for this particular workshop is Work it out where she coaches women for career success. There are many different situations and problems addressed, different kinds of bosses, not being heard or visible, doing lots of “invisible work”, etc. But she also has definitions of workaholism.
Because how can you really tell whether you “just like work” or are a full-blown workaholic? Like any addict, we tend to be in denial, after all. Most smokers will also respond to you that they “just like cigarettes” when really hardly anyone truly “likes or enjoys cigarettes”. But you don’t want to see that this is a place where you’ve lost your self-control and freedom to an addiction, especially if it’s a socially rewarded activity which, essentially, made you successful in the first place, like it is the case with overwork or an unnaturally hard work ethic.
First point: What made you successful in the first place is not necessarily what will make you successful in the future (as seen in Essentialism One and Two). So the assumption behind societally accepted overwork isn’t actually valid. Saying yes to all opportunities maybe gave you initial success but you will forever plateau there (or burn out) if you continue to do so. So the rationale of “Work hard and you’ll be successful” isn’t necessarily true. It might have been at some point. But it sure as hell isn’t now.
Secondly, addiction really is a quest for connection. Mel Robbins also cites this TED talk where Johann Hari explains that addiction mostly only fills a void. What people really want is connection. You strive for connection but don’t really know how because you’ve linked being loved to achievement, so your default solution is to work harder. Engaging in the addictive behaviour will ultimately ever only be a substitute for what you really want and that is connection. But, obviously, you’re never going to get real connection with real people by throwing yourself into your work and being stressed. So the addiction becomes self-perpetuating and hard to break out of.
The image behind burnout is that of a house which looks really normal from the outside. It might even look nice. But it’s only when you get really close that you see it’s all burnt out on the inside. That’s us. We look successful. The fact of being burnt out is so well hidden that we even fool ourselves.
Find the underlying psychological issues
Mel Robbins always maintains in her coachings that even most seemingly strictly work-related problems have an underlying psychological issue which might not at all be obviously connected to or the root of the superficial problem at hand. It’s her philosophy that you need to find this problem. See where you first reacted this way. Most bad habits are behaviours which have served you in the past. Mostly, way back in the past.
For me, working (too) hard, it turns out once I started reflecting about it, is not something ‘innate’ as I had always thought. It’s not ‘part of my character’, even though I have firmly believed so for a long time. I have just built a self-image around hard (over-)work so much that I can fool myself. Thanks to this exercise of asking when and determining the first time this has happened, it turns out that it started when I was nine. It started with a small thing really. My parents probably didn’t think much of it. It happened when my parents told me I had to quit one hobby (ice-skating) to focus on studying more, so I would get into a good secondary school. It was a tiny incident looking back. But it implicitly taught me that my worth is linked to my success. And that’s where I started collecting achievements when I wanted to feel valued.
I’m not saying I’ve solved this since I am still working on this problem myself. But it gets better when you start acknowledging it. You can reverse this. I’m still at a point where I’m really only happy with myself when I perform. But at least I’ve seen now that this is not some a priori innate trait of mine. I have learned to behave like this because it served me in the past. But it doesn’t serve me anymore now. So I owe it to myself to change. And so do you.
A utopia to shake up your concept of work
In case you’re still not convinced, here’s a little utopical thought experiment I came up with to help you rethink if you really just work so hard because “you love to work” and “couldn’t imagine another life” or whether it’s something differnt.
Imagine this other society, this utopia where it’s normal to work between 4-5 hours per day. It’s ok to hover in between, to go over 4 hours if you need to finish something. But it’s actively discouraged, even financially retributed if you go over 5 hours because the policy makers’ opinion is that it will make you ineffective to work too long. (This is an actually true and not all that utopical part but that’s probably hard to imagine or believe for a high-performing young professional like you who is expected to work 10+ hours.)
You work your 4 hours like everybody and are pretty much expected to have a very rich life outside of those four hours, for which there is ample time and financing provided. They pay you well in your job because they like the quality work you do. They like how you focus on what’s essential and disengage with any superficial work. In such a society, overwork is discouraged, looked down upon and even punished. There is no way you can access your work projects or data to continue to work after you’ve left the workplace. It is even prohibited.
Do you really think you would still be working 10+ hours “because it’s your personality”? I hardly think anyone would. 4-5 hours is more than enough to make most of the work you love. To come back to work refreshed the next day and perform your best. To not be stressed and feel “haunted” by your work.
Jump off the “busy bandwagon”
If our societal definition of success weren’t “being busy” anymore, we could see through the systemic nature of the problem. We would value someone as successful not because they work long hours but because they have banished superficial work from their lives. Then, it would be easy to jump of the busy bandwagon. But if it’s what everybody else is doing and expecting, that’s much harder to admit. Your boss, after all, is a role model everybody is secretly expected to emulate. Especially if you’re a woman who is afraid she could make a bad impression and that then, not everybody would like her anymore. Because apparently that’s what a women should strive for: to be liked by everybody and be very careful. Even tough that’s not exactly a behavioural pattern which will make you successful. How many (successful) men have you met who care about whether somebody might not like them if they did thing XY (which is essential to their career)?
I don’t want to say that I am “better than you” now because I’ve started to see through this system. I’ve only made headway on this path over the course of the last year. It’s has been quite a journey. I read lots of books, listened to audio books, took time to reflect, to try out new things and rearrange my habits. It’s not been easy. Things have not worked out right away. Old habits where more persistent than I thought. I have had to face hard truths and investigate psychological issues.
It requires courage to really look into your own mind. We overworkers especially have trained ourselves to look to work for solutions for all the problems in our lives. Or at least to help us ignore them. But, plot twist: your actual problems won’t just go away if you bury yourself in work and your underlying psychological issue won’t solve themselves. You have to unlearn this habit of throwing yourself into work to avoid your problems. To do so, you have to make an active push against what’s valued in our society. That’s hard. It requires courage. But I encourage you to at least try.
So much for now,