We tend to have an attitude, at least in America, that being a workaholic is a good thing. It’s virtuous. You’re a hard worker. You’re successful. You achieve things. You focus your attention in the right areas, especially if you’re a man. You eat what you kill, goddamn it!
The workaholic is often deified. We think it might not be that way for millennials — The Uber Generation, chasing freelance — but millennials might end up the same way as Boomers via economic realities.
Work is virtue. Hard work is great. So it stands to reason that the workaholic is among the greatest of us all, right?
It’s time to end the deification of the workaholic, especially among males. Let’s discuss.
The Workaholic And Productivity
This is where you really need to start any of these discussions — we’ll get into happiness and all the actually important things in a second — because if you’re spending a ton of time at work and focused on work (i.e. you’re a workaholic), shouldn’t your work be productive in some respect?
Well, yes and no. See, it should — but a lot of people really have no clue what productivity is. Our focus is often on the quantity of work, and we often confuse the terms ‘busy’ and ‘productive.’ At the most basic level, a lot of workaholics are busy. They’re not necessarily productive.
Here’s the most common and logical reason for the workaholic-productivity conundrum: when speaking about productivity, 55 hours of work/week is essentially a hard ceiling. A guy chasing targets for 53 hours/week — which is still a lot — is probably doing better in terms of productivity than a guy chasing targets for 80 hours/week. And if that latter workaholic has a family, Jesus H. Christ.
So we’ve got this idea that ’55 hours of work/week is the max on productivity,’ which has been backed up by research — and then the second idea you need to bring into the equation here is basic definitions of productivity and the difference between organizational productivity and individual productivity. Just like people and companies often have different goals, well, so too do they have different measures of productivity. We almost never discuss this topic, but there’s no way around it.
Here’s the third leg of your triangle: consider the complete lack of organizational priority in most companies, and now we’ve arrived at a specific place. See, companies would prefer people work a lot but …
- Working a lot doesn’t make you any more productive
- You’re working a lot on projects that aren’t really priorities
- Your notion of productivity might mean nothing in the context of organizational productivity
Kinda fraught, right? The workaholic culture we beat our chests about doesn’t even make much sense.
The dirty little secret about the male workaholic culture
I’ll get to the happiness stuff in a second, I promise.
Here’s the thing most people probably know but don’t discuss. Whether you think it’s because men can’t have babies or a man’s role is supposed to be a bread-winner, the fact is — as The Atlantic put it well recently — “Elite American males are obsessed with work and wealth.” That’s a great article that goes into detail on a lot of things I’ve blogged about for two years now, including target-chasing managers and the worst types of people to be your boss, but here’s the most amazing section:
Rich American men, by comparison, are the workaholics of the world. They put in significantly longer hours than both fully employed middle-class Americans and rich men in other countries. Between 1985 and 2010, the weekly leisure time of college-educated men fell by 2.5 hours, more than any other demographic. “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun,” the economist Robert Frank wrote. Internationally, there is a positive relationship between income and happiness, but the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman has found that the plutocratic dreams of young educated men, like the ones in the NYU study, are immiserating fantasies:
That whole paragraph is great, but the best part is: “Building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun.”
That’s the dirty little secret of the male workaholic culture. It can’t go anywhere because it absolutely has to exist. It provides meaning to a lot of men — and some women. To a certain extent, we all tie our self-worth back to our work lives and perceptions of how we’re doing there. If you’re straight-up kicking ass and taking names at work, it’s hard to think of yourself negatively as a guy — even if the rest of your life is a shitbox. I know dozens, maybe even hundreds, of guys like this. Their marriage is on autopilot or they’re single and getting bombed every night, but what does it matter? They’re a workaholic and their boss thinks they’re slaying revenue dragons weekly. Self-worth 101, baby.
The workaholic and happiness
Here we go.
Most people inherently know that time is more valuable than money in terms of happiness, but in the day-to-day and week-to-week of your life, societal constructs don’t often reinforce that. They reinforce tasks, deliverables, projects, due dates, and bonuses. They reinforce, essentially, being a workaholic. That won’t make you happier, though. You can say a ton about the differences culturally between the U.S. and northern Europe, and you’d be right about all of them — those are basically socialist countries, for one — but northern Europe always tops those global happiness surveys, and they have some of the most flexible work programs in the world.
If you assume being a workaholic is guaranteed to make you more money, well, that’s not 100 percent true either. Many a workaholic is a target-chaser — that means a middle manager who chases targets for a top dog, or executive. If you’re good at a job and you’re a target-chaser, you won’t make that much more money. The executive will like you where you are. You chase, and sometimes hit, targets for him. What incentive does he have to move you up? Because he’s your friend or mentor? Maybe. But in reality he probably sees you as a threat — and where you’re at right now, workaholic-style? You’re doing him more good there.
So, happiness isn’t really tied to more money, and being a workaholic isn’t even guaranteed to get you more money. Seems like we can move along here.
The workaholic and The Temple of Busy
This is important one. Look, all monkeys do what they see. Thanks, Counting Crows!
We all spend a lot of time talking about how busy we are. We love the quantity of work, we think busy is productive, etc. We also want to feel relevant at work, but work isn’t really designed in a way to make us feel relevant. It’s designed to put us towards hopefully-productive tasks in the name of other people making more money and us making roughly the same. Since that’s not relevance, we need to find a path to said relevance. For most people, that path is:
“Can’t talk now, Teresa! Gotta hop on a call then I’ve got a 2:30 on revenue plays!”
That makes you feel wanted. Isn’t that what all humans really want? To belong, even if it’s to a pointless meeting about revenue plays?
That’s a Temple of Busy culture, and many workplaces have it. And the first tier of spider monkeys birthed from any Temple of Busy culture are workaholic target-chasers constantly bellowing about how they put in 70 hours last week. In reality, they probably put in about 50 and answered a few e-mails at 11pm. We all know the drill. But that’s the workaholic culture: some fact, a lot of fiction, and more lies than asking a college kid about his sex life.
Can we end a workaholic culture, especially among guys?
Probably not, because it would require an entirely different set of norms around what ‘success’ really is — ‘success’ would have to be coming home at 4pm, turning off screens, spending time with loved ones, and making the amount of money necessary for your family to have the life they want to have. That should be ‘success’ but we often think of ‘success’ (as guys) in terms of big house, hot wife, nice car, solid salary, managerial decision-making capabilities at work, vacations, second home, right memberships, etc. That all feeds the workaholic culture, and the belief that you can’t have it without being a workaholic. That’s also patently untrue.
Go read some interviews with Mitch Albom. Dude is top of his field, makes millions, and regularly admits he works about 3–4 hours, day/max. Stephen King is the same way. Those guys are writers, so it’s a bit different — but even Reed Hastings, who makes money hand over fist with Netflix, has talked about freeing up time for the important things and trying to make as few decisions as possible.
(That’s something I glossed over in this post: a lot of workaholic managers are workaholics in large part because they’re micromanagers, with micromanagement being another one of these workplace concepts that’s hard to eliminate.)
I don’t think the workaholic culture is going anywhere, especially among guys. But … I think we need to end the deification of it. When someone screeches at you about the 74 hour work week they just clocked, don’t high-five ’em. Punch ’em in the face and say, “Why are you proud of that?” When someone barks that they “always take work home with them,” show them photos of their children and say, “This seems more valuable.” Stop deifying the workaholic. Instead, show them the valuable things they’re missing by choosing that path — and heck, feel free to tell them about all the research methodology showing their workaholic ways aren’t even effective for them or their organization.
(And yes, I also largely glossed over health here. But obviously health is a huge thing in terms of a workaholic culture.)
What else did I miss, or what would you add?
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.