Saturday, October 29, 2016

Workaholism and Its Discontents

There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
H.L. Mencken. 1880-1956.

“Most people spend their time on the 'urgent' rather than on the 'important.' ”
Robert Hutchins. 1899-1977.

“There's definitely no logic to human behavior.”
Bjork. Human behavior. Debut.

As a classic workaholic, it's only been in recent years that I have fully realized how much I ignored my family in favor of work throughout my career. At every opportunity, it seems, I tried hard to choose work and career above family and friends. I was often aided in this by the technological advances of the past few decades.

I always used to work late into the night. Initially, that meant being at a physical office which, in turn, meant not even being physically present at home. Later on with the advent of high speed connectivity, it became easier to "work from home" - for me as well as pretty much everyone else on the planet, . For many of us, though, that didn't mean spending fewer hours at the office and more hours at home. It meant the exact opposite. The home work hours were additive. In my case, it meant I spent just as many hours physically at work, often late into the night, then went home to jump on the computer again. It meant spending weekend days working from home instead of going into the office but it didn’t reduce the aggregate number of hours spent in the office. It meant even more immediate access to “work” regardless of time of day or night. There was always work to fill the empty hours.

I used to jump up at 3 am to send an email or to check on the status of something - be it the status of a long compile, be it the status of some projects through various project management tools, be it the status of some critical alerts or other operational issues, be it whatever. It seemed like there were always more and more things to keep an eye on. The result was obvious. I may have physically been at home but I wasn't there mentally. My face was glued to the screen on my laptop even as I sat next to my wife and pretended to watch TV. My eyes were focused on the same screen as I pretended to spend quality time with my daughter or help her with her homework. Even if the laptop wasn't open, chances are that I was thinking about a bug I was working on, an upsetting email I had just read, or one I had just sent!

Worse yet, I now resented the fact that my family was interfering with my concentration and encroaching on my obviously important work. Couldn’t they see I was busy? My responses were often curt, filled with annoyance, often requiring a repetition of the context since I hadn't been paying attention the first time around (see my rant about multitasking here).

Fast forward a few years and we've taken another huge leap forward - or should I say backward - in the ways in which work intrudes on our personal lives. That damn smartphone or tablet is surgically attached to our wrists - even when we are walking, driving, eating, or lying in bed. The invasion is complete and total. For workaholics like me, this means every waking moment is spent checking on stuff - either in a chat tool or on instant messenger or Facebook or Twitter or even (the horror!) email.

As a society, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction. Our families have given up on us or are themselves preoccupied with their own work or school or friends - all from the comfort of the dinner table. It's become routine to see all members of the family sitting around the table each with their own iPhone or iPad and headphones. Physically there, mentally elsewhere. I think I now understand the reason behind recent French attempts to limit employee access to work email after hours. I contend that the insidious connection between workaholism and our ever increasingly connected and online world will not result in a happy populace over time - not unless it's carefully checked and controlled.

I know some people have (or at least claim to have) achieved work-life balance. I don't know too many people like that nor was I ever able to achieve it myself. For me, it's too late. Thankfully, my marriage survived. Thankfully, my daughter grew up to be a successful, happy, and compassionate adult. The two of them have been much more forgiving of my flaws than I ever realized. I was lucky. Many others are not as lucky. This problem will only get worse if we don’t address it head on. If you don’t believe me, just wait five years. We’ll all be wearing Augmented Reality glasses so we can multitask surreptitiously as we pretend to spend time with our loved ones.


  1. That's classic problems with Leaders. They need to influence, to continue building followers. So, Ben is now leading "the other side". :)
    Once a leader , always a leader.

  2. Depends on the leaders,if they work after reaching home, they expect their team also to do that. Some leaders use example of someone in the team who does that and expect all to be available 24x7. Leader may still have his wife, but sometimes his team mates would have already left their wives and supporting his career...