Technology has not created leisure but the sense of never being free of work
Opinion: Obsessive devotion to one’s job is toxic, not just to oneself but to family and friends
“I’m old enough to remember when leisure was a good thing. In fact we were going to have more of it.”
My name is Fintan and I am not a workaholic.
I was on radio last week with Seán O’Rourke and as the interview was winding down he threw in a typically canny and unsettling question: “Are you a workaholic?” What makes it disconcerting is that it is no longer obvious what the approved answer might be.
My instinct is to treat the term as a horrible accusation to be vehemently denied. But reading, for example, tributes in yesterday’s papers to Catherine Ashton’s role in the deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, she was widely praised for being a workaholic. This is one of the most insidious shifts of our time: overwork has stopped being a neurosis and become a badge of honour.
I would be both alarmed and ashamed to be called a workaholic. When the term was coined, an analogy with alcoholism was obvious. It was invented in 1968 by the American psychologist and Baptist pastor, Wayne Oates, in an article called “On Being a ‘Workaholic’”, written for a religious magazine.
The thrust of the neologism was that what Oates called “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly” is an addiction as problematic as the compulsion to drink or gamble or take drugs.
And this is surely right. Obsessive devotion to work is severely toxic. It harms individuals and families. But it also harms work itself – people who do nothing but their jobs generally end up doing their jobs badly.
Freedom from drudgery
I’m old enough to remember when leisure was a good thing. In fact, we were going to have more of it. Twenty years ago, we had seen the future and it literally wasn’t working. The dominant narrative about the 21st century was that new technologies were going to free us all from the drudgery of long hours at work. We’d be clocking in for perhaps 20 hours a week.
The problem, indeed, was what to do with all the free time we were going to have. Leisure was a vast new continent waiting to be occupied.
Of course we now know that everything went in precisely the opposite direction. New technologies didn’t expand leisure time. They expanded work space. The lines between working and not working, between office and home, have become almost invisible. The office is everywhere: in the house, in the car, up a mountain. One of the great pleasures of life, for example, used to be a train journey on which you could read a book or look out the window, safely suspended between here and there, out of reach for a few precious hours. Now, Iarnr ód Eireann is running ads explicitly describing their trains as offices.
Whatever happened to dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing? Or, more prosaically, the necessity of doing other things: taking care of children, nurturing relationships, reading books, doing voluntary work, exploring odd hobbies? Or, come to that, sleeping for eight hours a night? Officially, they’re all fine – just read your company’s work/life balance policy.
In real life, there is a silent but insidiously powerful pressure not so much to work as to be seen to be working. Come in early, don’t leave until someone else goes first, keep your phone on and check your emails incessantly. The shift in the meaning of “workaholic” from psychologically damaged obsessive to role model is emblematic of this pressure to bow down before work as an all-consuming pursuit.
Tyranny of overwork
And, of course, that demand is nonsense. There are times – exams, deadlines, emergencies – when work has to occupy most of life. Things have to get done. But the tyranny of overwork has very little to do with getting things done. The Greeks work longer hours than the Germans (42.2 hours a week per full-time worker, compared to just 35.6) but they’re less productive. And the French, who value their leisure time and have strict laws limiting working hours, are more productive even than the Germans.
On the more intimate, personal level, I’d always hire a balanced individual who turns her phone off, gets a good night’s sleep and has healthy relationships, over someone who tells me she’ll eat, drink and sleep the job. The person who will get the job done is the person who will forget about the job when it is done.
So, I would be utterly mortified to be classed as a workaholic. Like everyone else I know who has the good fortune to have an enjoyable job, I work hard. I try to do a task as well as I can – and then I leave it alone. I spend a lot of time doing nothing very much – that infinitely valuable time when things float into the head and occasionally take up residence.
I am at least half-serious about my motto being “never do today what you can put off until tomorrow”. It often succeeds – by tomorrow, a lot of what seemed so necessary today will have turned out to be pointless or misconceived or just usefully avoidable. An increasing amount of what we are obliged to think of as work falls into these categories.
Giving in to it is a laziness much worse than doing nothing at all.