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Holidays should be a time for friends, family and relaxation, but for a workaholic, they’re nothing but an unnecessary pain in the neck. “I’d go in and work anyways,” remembers Matt, who is a member of Workaholics Anonymous and can’t reveal his surname. “They’d turn the lights out at my office building but I’d just plug in an extension so I’d have light at my desk.”
There are demanding workplaces and then there are what sociologist Lewis Coser called “greedy institutions” — organizations that covet and devour all your loyalty, time and energy. For workaholics like Matt, however — who even as a retiree continues devoting himself to various projects — the greedy institution is exactly where they choose to be.
It’s hard to say how many workaholics are among us. A 2007 survey done by Desjardins Financial Security found the number of Canadians identifying themselves as workaholics to be 22 per cent; a recent study by Statistics Canada, however, shows 31 per cent.
To experts, the percentage could be bigger yet. It all just depends on how people define the term “workaholism.” “If you ask people the extent to which their work life activities interfere with their non-work world activities, the rates become much higher,” says Scott Schieman, a University of Toronto associate professor, specializing in work stress and health. “Nowadays, the parameters are not as clear. There are shifting boundaries between work and non-work life.”
For Schieman, one thing separating a hard worker from an over-worker is choice; the latter chooses to work extreme hours at the expense of his or her personal life.
To Barbara Killinger, a clinical psychologist and the author of Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts, a person is a workaholic when their job causes them to lose touch with their emotions.
“A workaholic is someone who’s become emotionally crippled,” Killinger explains. “They lose their feelings and their ability to be interested in other people.”
Part of the problem is with today’s work culture, explains Schieman, and people who leave the office early these days often get dirty glares. For Killinger, our value systems are also to blame and workaholism is inherent to many kinds of jobs. “Many of our institutions are workaholic institutions,” she says. “It’s frightening.”
Serious workaholism can have dangerous health consequences too, and Killinger explains in Japan, they even have a word for death from overworking: “Karoshi.”
It is those closest to workaholics that suffer most, however. For Matt, he regrets being physically and emotionally absent from his family life. “It sounds harsh but weekends were just a time to pretend to be a family man and rest up enough so that Monday would be go time,” he says. “I lost a very lovely, wonderful wife who I never really got to know and I probably never did her justice.”