Forget the drink… do we need Workaholics Anonymous?


There was a TV ad for instant soup a couple of years ago that struck a nerve with me.

You might remember it – a yuppie type, carrying a cup of soup, rushing around an office as though his feet were on fire, and frantically shouting at people to get out of his way. The very picture of a workaholic, although he didn’t have a smartphone glued to his non-soup bearing hand – any update to the ad campaign will require this.

With evidence mounting that people in the Western world are ‘always on’, obsessed with their work, and can’t just take a break, new research at the university of Bergen in Norway has developed a scale to measure work addiction.

The questions – available online if you feel like confronting your inner demons – ask whether you work for longer hours than you plan. Tick. Whether you try and make room for more work in your schedule. Tick. Whether other people have warned you to cut down on work, and you’ve ignored them. Tick. Whether you forgo hobbies and leisure activities to fit in more work. Er, tick.

Psychologists disagree on whether ‘workaholism’ is an addiction in the traditional sense – with one pointing out to the Financial Times that obviously the definition of ‘too much work’ varies rather a bit between, say, China and Sweden.

So, on the very ‘first world problem’ Bergen scale, I’m a workaholic. But realistically, who isn’t?

In Ireland, the first response you get from anyone when you ask how work or business is, is ‘busy’. Followed quickly by some attempt at our national sport, the poor mouth; ‘busy, but can’t get paid’, ‘busy, doing twice the work for half the money’, ‘a busy fool’, or some variation of same.

All of which begs the question of whether we have truly subverted the stereotype of the lazy Irish by becoming complete workaholics. I suspect not. A better question might be whether we all just obsessed with whether everyone else thinks we’re working as hard as they are?

I work odd hours due to print deadlines – that’s part of the job. But I regularly get emails from all sorts of people sent in the wee hours. This is always a cause for suspicion. Are they just back from the pub? Are they in the pub? Or is there an email timing service that makes you look like you work crazy hours? If so, well played.

Friends who work in big legal and financial firms tell horror stories of colleagues who are at their desks at 7am, work through to midnight or later, go home to bake a cake for the boss’s birthday, and come back in at 7am, ready to do it all again. That particular girl did get a promotion, although what she probably needs is counselling.

I’ve been offered interview slots with people from 6am. What sort of person wants to talk to another human at 6am? That’s not natural. Once, I even said yes. It didn’t go very well, because I’d been in the office until 11pm the night before.

It isn’t a recession thing, either. This was happening long before the banks went bust, but it seems the Irish might be particularly susceptible to it.

Thinking about about our colleagues around the world is revelatory. In the UK, high earning professionals go for drinks at lunchtime. And while I don’t believe absolutely everything I see on TV, we’ve all watched the knicker factory machinists in Coronation Street merrily downing pints, then going back to work. To their potentially dangerous sewing machines. In Ireland, there’d be uproar. In Corrie, it seems to make the knickers better.

In Australia, it’s Friday beers in the office. And team-building! They’re mad for the team-building. Just a theory, but I think the Irish thrive more in an atmosphere of simmering resentment, than by passive-aggressively ‘pretending’ to drown each other while out kayaking.

My Dutch cousin works a four day week – most people here would be looking for a second job at that rate, trying to squeeze as much money as possible out of a working week.

If work is an addiction like any other, it’s possible that we’re just a nation of addictive personalities, and drink problems are being replaced, or compounded, by work addictions. Or perhaps it’s more to do with our national insecurity. We are completely obsessed with what people think of us, from the individual to the institutional.
From the way we drink to the way we work, we always have to be the best, or be seen to be. We’re fiercely competitive, while always decrying our own success. There’s a bit of the guy in the soup ad in all of us – busy looking busy, sounding busy, but not earning busy.

Published in the Evening Herald, 26 September 2013.

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