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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001


Work fixations

Visa Ravindran

Freelance writer based inChennai.

Workaholism is called "the pretty addiction" because society rewards it and workaholics are admired. It has been described as "the best-dressed problem of the 20th century" (by Bryan Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk). It is intellectuals and white collar workers who are more prone to this addiction and modern technology is adding significantly to workloads and driving more people to it. From following "farmer's time" and the gentle rhythms of nature in our agricultural past we have moved through "factory time" after the industrial revolution (when clocks became significant in the workplace) and have now been catapulted into the frenzy of multi-tasking and the endless possibilities of addressing many things at once - accepting also the tyrannies of different time zones forcing one to be active for much longer hours than our circadian rhythms permit - with nothing getting our sole, undivided attention. The knowledge revolution has multiplied workplace stress in the 21th century where the past century's best-dressed problem is often overlooked in the excitement of instant communication and continuous connectivity. With the new all pervasive technologies, workplace and home are becoming interchangeable for business, and the dividing line between work and leisuretime getting blurred. So much activity is packed into some organised holidays that enjoying oneself seems like a chore defined by "must sees" and "must dos". One also has doubts about how effective swimming pools and bowling alleys provided in the workplace itself for information techies to refresh the mind before fresh onslaughts of activity, can turn out to be. Workaholics who cannot cut off thoughts about work even at home are hardly going to be able to benefit from such sops at the workspot.

G.S.Bains/Fotomedia
Japanese graveyard.

Work addiction is difficult to define because it is so close to a virtue. How does one differentiate between Type "A" behaviour (aggressive, ambitious, intelligent, hardworking, creative etc.) and work addiction? The work addict typically arranges everything else around his work, over which he has no control, and this affects his health and family relationships, creating a vicious circle that adds further stress. The addict needs work as a "fix" and fails to develop hobbies and outside interests that refresh the mind. Workaholism, says Bryan Robinson, is "an unmet inner need that is insatiable. There is an element of perfectionism operating here much like an anorexic who sees herself as fat when others see her as thin."

John O. Neikirk, who treats work addiction, says "A compulsive worker is one who continues in the same activity pattern despite the fact that this pattern creates significant problems in major life areas." Some of the underlying insecurities that lead people to seek solutions in working to excess are the insecurities of downsizing companies that want to be "lean, mean" organisations and the hopes of getting rich quick in small companies, for example, where the self-employed drive themselves to do more to earn more. Downsizing not only spreads more work on fewer people but adds to the insecurity of employees who overwork to avoid the axe falling on them.

Melody Rosin is a mother of two, a wife and a fulltime airline employee. She starts her workday before daylight, sleeps when her husband works and works when he sleeps. Obviously this is not great for her marriage but many women are doing this - working odd hours, nights and weekends to avoid leaving children with babysitters and for other reasons. (Jim Avila, NBC News.) Flexitime has its downside. An interesting sidelight on this is the result of research on workaholic women: when a wife or female partner works more than 40 hours a week, the spouse's chances of retaining good health decline by more than 25 per cent! This is attributed to the fact that it is women who are the arrangers of constructive social contacts necessary for nurturing relationships and are the forces that chivvy the man to see the doctor when necessary. The family loses out on both these counts when women overwork, according to a study at the University of Chicago.

D.V.Jainer/Telepress Features

Rajesh Joshi, who has been a computer operator for 15 years now, sometimes working 15 hours at a stretch, has chronic backache. Sudarshan Iyer, with a similar background, has blurred vision, severe backache and acute mental stress. 32-year-old Nikhil Chopra, working as a graphic artist, has developed pink patches in his eyes due to overexposure to a computer screen and Sucheta Gupte has mild arthritis in the armjoints and also what is called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) that affects the three fingers handling the mouse: (The Indian Express, March 5, 1999). These are only a few disorders that have become the costs of working in a technologically-upgraded working world that never sleeps. As somebody remarked, it's always daylight somewhere.

We must work for a living. Work is also self-expression. It opens avenues to psychological development and personal fulfillment. It is also money and power; in some cases, it is also identity. It is when it gradually begins to become the only identity that trouble begins.

Diane Fassel, management consultant and author of Working Ourselves to Death, identifies three stages in this addiction which has been likened to obsessive compulsive disorder: the early stage work addict thinks about work all the time, is a compulsive list-maker, works overtime regularly, and refuses to take time off. In the middle stage she says, other addictions may also increase. The addict begins to put aside personal relationships to such an extent that social life is nonexistent, he gets more worn out physically and has difficulty sleeping. In some cases blackouts and periods of staring into space become the manifestations of an unhealthy addiction to work. The late stage is when the addict develops headaches, backaches, high blood pressure, ulcers and depression. Calling it "the cleanest of all addictions", Fassel says its insidious development is difficult to face due to the fact that "it is socially promoted because it seems socially productive."

Tetsuro Keto, who has presented many papers on the Japanese workstyle, believes that the argument that the Japanese are by nature diligent is not supported by history. He believes that it is a myth created to meet the demands of reconstruction after the War. Karoshi - Japanese for death by overwork - is a new word making frequent appearances in applications for compensation in cases of cardio-vascular disease due to excessive work and occupational stress. Most Karoshi victims are said to have worked 3000 hours a year on their jobs, 1646 in France) which is roughly twice the figures for France, Germany and Sweden. The observations Keto makes about Japanese society are relevant to all those consumed by their work: Japan is a massive producer without time to enjoy its products, and "wealth without pleasure" is, in his eyes, one of the basic flaws of modern Japanese society.

The dilemma of the corporate employee is succinctly summed up by James W. Leth in an article on "Technology and the Work Ethic" -

1. To enjoy the good life, you must earn a good salary.

2. To earn a good salary, you can't have a life.

He also argues convincingly that hiring more people to work shorter hours will make up for the increased cost of benefits in the long-term assets of a healthier workforce. He even raises questions about whether by giving family life more importance, violent crime will also diminish.

It does not come as a surprise that the word "business", which now means commercial work, used to mean "work that produces anxiety" and is derived from the Old English "bisignis" meaning anxiety. The commercial life of our shrinking planet cannot rest on the shoulders of employees stretched beyond their limits. Nor can men seduced by technology to increase their expectations of what is possible or not possible continue indefinitely without paying the price in terms of empty lives and impaired health. Martin Moore-Ede, a Harvard professor, who is a fatigue expert, shows that the Chernobyl explosion, the Exxon Valdez oilspill, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, Three Mile Island, Bhopal and thousands of other accidents and deaths were the result of human error caused by the "round the clock pace of our non-stop world." He also heads Circadian Technologies, worldwide consultants to industry, providing solutions that enhance alertness in the workplace.

Balance in life choices has therefore become more important than ever. We cannot pay for our greed with our health or unconsciously slide into an addictive workstyle that takes away what it is supposed to provide in the first place - the good life. If the good life is to be truly meaningful and not merely the trappings of the executive lifestyle, it is necessary to rethink our priorities. Equally, it is important to be discreet in the use of technology and not become slaves to all the beeps that are threatening to rule our lives.


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