Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Are You a Workaholic? How to Tell.

I've always been drawn to go hard or go home jobs.  I've done well at a few--I was a retail business planner in my twenties, when I hadn't children and was married to someone who was married to his job; I put in plenty of hours and got all kinds of praise, feeding a craving I now know constitutes a life-long struggle--and failed miserably at a couple, namely treeplanting and a brief stint at an ad agency, where the tyranny of the segmented hour nearly drove me mad.  Control freaks don't do well with imposed control.  Or quite possibly I was just bad at both jobs. 

In any case, my Dad taught me that work can be a great source of satisfaction, though he will say he struggled with his own boundaries as far as work goes.  I've certainly had many a satisfying day at the office, though, because, like my father, I really like to work.

But limits are hard for those of my ilk. From my dad and from others I've worked and lived with, as well as a few I've dated--and my own experience with ambition and work, of course--I've worked up a few red flags for what it means to be a workaholic.  In short, it has much less to do with hours committed than with emotional connection.  Of course we need to care about the way we spend most of our time--clockwatchers can stop reading here--but for those of us who have a little trouble seeing where our work ends and we begin, here is my completely unscientific quiz:

  1. When people meet you, is your work the first topic of discussion?  Are you looking at your Blackberry more than at your spouse or prospective date?  Are you talking on the phone with co-workers when you are out with your significant other(s) or your friends? 
  2. Do you think, more than in passing, about your work and what you need to do when you are with your family or friends? (Note I didn't say thinking about your co-workers: there are studies that say most people have, ahem, thoughts about their co-workers.  That's a different post altogether.)
  3. Is there any time when you are free of thinking of work?  Do you have a passion that absorbs you for an hour or more at a time during the practice of which you stop thinking of work?
  4. When you get a work email on the weekend or very late at night, do you feel compelled to answer it?
  5. Do you keep your Blackberry by your bedside?
At my last firm, I worked with a woman who was in her early sixties.  She was our office manager but doubled as den mother.  A former miltary wife and mother of four grown children, she took care of everyone, me included. Whether I arrived at the office at seven in the morning or left at eight in the evening, she was there, supervising the night secretaries (yes, some places think they need them) and the cleaning people. She called several times a day when she took the occasional day off to be with her grandchildren. 

Then she started acting out of character.  Several times, she berated staff members in the hallway--she'd always been a closed-door admonisher--and then, a proper Catholic lady, started dropping F-bombs for no apparent reason.  After that a week arrived when she was unaccountably missing.  I got worried and made phone calls to head office.  Two hours later, I found out the truth:  she had a brain tumor.  She did all she was told by her doctors and came back to work for a time, presumably to preserve her benefits, but two years later, she was dead. 

She was a wonderful woman and got lots of kudos at work--the managing partner once referred publicly to her as "incredible"--but I wonder if at the end of her life she didn't wish she'd done more with her grandchildren, or her husband of nearly fifty years, for that matter. What I wouldn't give. It was her life, of course, and she seemed okay with it all.  But it made me wonder, and now, despite my love for crossing things off my to-do list, I think of what I would do if my fate was hers.


  1. I totally get what you are saying. Sometimes I think what would I be wishing I had done in my life if I was on my death bed...hopefully I will not have any regrets.

  2. I suppose if one were curing a major disease or affecting peace, it would be worth it. But for most of us, it's a iving. As my most wise boss once told me, let us not confuse work with life. And he did and still put in as much time as anyone I know.