In March 1932, the multimillionaire George Eastman — founder of the Kodak Company and the man who, with his innovations in cameras and film, brought photography to the masses — took a pistol from a drawer next to his bed, and shot himself through the heart. By way of explanation he left an impressively concise suicide note, which simply read: “To my friends, my work is done. Why wait? GE.”
It provided a fitting epitaph for a tireless entrepreneur and philanthropist who had dedicated his life to his business and his vocation. Eastman had never married or had a family, which he attributed to having been too busy for such attachments when he was younger. Now in his 70s, a debilitating spinal illness had deprived him of the ability to work, travel or pursue his passion for cycling, and it seems his vast fortune and the esteem of millions wasn’t enough to make continuing to hang around worth the trouble.
Complaints from very successful people that the view from the top of the ladder doesn’t actually look all that sunny may sound hollow — drinking all alone on your Learjet while your property portfolio lies empty must be tough — until you stop and think about what they might have had to give up to get there. Friends, relationships and social lives can all become casualties to a relentless schedule or headlong dedication to one’s calling. It’s hard to watch this outpouring of celebrity glumness, for instance, without feeling a pang of sympathy for Russell Brand, Lady Gaga or Tom Shadyac:
Perhaps the most telling insight here into what gets squeezed out when success fills every corner of your life is John Lennon’s somber admission: “As a Beatle we’d made it, and there was nothing to do. We had money, we had fame and there was no joy.”
It’s an observation reflected in the annual personal well-being report published by the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, which shows that by far the most affluent boroughs of London — Islington, Camden, Kensington, Hammersmith, neighborhoods where the wealthiest Londoners reside — “all fell below the average for England, for all three positive measures of well-being (life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness); they also all reported anxiety levels above the England average.”
The disturbing thing is, this kind of high-attainment ennui isn’t confined to superstars or the super-rich. It’s something that could be in store for anyone who gets some measure of achieving their career ambitions — especially if they fall into the trap of being too single-minded about their work along the way. According to the outreach chair for the Workaholics Anonymous organization in the U.S., who goes by the pseudonym J.C., the stereotype of a successful entrepreneur or high-ranking professional who never has time for their partners or children is misleading. “Often we think of white-collared workers as prone to workaholism, but workaholics are found in every part of society,” she says. “There are students and homemakers who are driven to keep doing more at the cost to their health, happiness and sanity.”
While there is no generally accepted medical definition of workaholism, for W.A. and its members, “the desire to work compulsively” is an addiction as all-consuming as alcoholism or drug dependency — and the group’s recommended route to recovery follows an adapted version of the 12-step program familiar from Alcoholics Anonymous practice.
There are no official estimates of how many work addicts there are nationwide, but W.A. says it currently supports more than 80 groups meeting regularly in 32 states. In her experience, says J.C., “this disease is rampant.” Culture is largely to blame, in her view, with the celebrated American work ethic disguising a dark side of the “work hard, play hard” mentality. “The U.S. in particular has a long history of rewarding those who overwork,” says J.C., pointing out that the American workforce finds itself entitled to “some of the shortest vacation days and work holidays of any industrial country. The cost of workaholism on healthcare, burnout and subsequent decreased purposeful contributions is enormous.”
It’s interesting to note that, according to annual figures compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), employees in the U.S. work fewer hours on average per year than in a number of other nations. In 2016, with an average working week of 35.8 hours, America ranked behind 14 other countries, including Ireland (where the average is 39.2 hours a week), Israel (38.5), Russia (41.7) and Mexico, whose population has topped the list since 2013, and in 2016 had an average working week of more than 45 hours. It’s probably no coincidence that several of the OECD countries reported as having the lowest working hours, such as Switzerland (33 hours a week), Norway (29.6) and Demark (30), are the same nations that regularly rank in the top five of the U.N.’s World Happiness Report.
As bare averages, though, these numbers perhaps disguise the toxic intensity of working culture in some societies. In Japan, for instance, which ranks a leisurely 22nd on the work-hours list, the total dedication demanded of salary-men by corporate custom is notorious. Chronic overwork in the business community there has resulted in so many sudden deaths from stress-related health conditions such as stroke and heart-failure that there’s a name for it: “Karoshi,” meaning “death from overwork.” It’s even recognized as a public health issue by the Japanese government, which has been publishing annual “karoshi” figures since the late 1980s. (They usually number in the hundreds, but many believe the real death toll to be much higher.)
Back in the U.S., those who fit the live-to-work profile tend to push themselves extraordinarily hard too. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 13 percent of those in paid employment during 2017 were working a 48-hour week or more.
While it may not be given as much media attention as in Japan, overwork in America is rife, says J.C., and “the social impact is deafening.” This instinct is confirmed by recent research by Anat Keinan at Harvard Business School, which scarily suggests that in American society today, the aspirations toward wealth and power have been replaced as the ultimate status symbols by a lack of leisure time and “having no life.”
So, aside from being able to muster little in the way of interests or social life outside work — as neatly characterized in a recent MEL article on ultimate dating turn-offs — what are the signs that you’re aspiring toward total live-to-work-hood? If you feel an “inability to rest and be comfortable in the moment,” says J.C., compulsive overwork might be to blame. Other traits include finding yourself “unable to know what you want to do, or need to do for yourself; feeling compelled to do certain tasks, or feeling resentment about having to complete tasks; basing your self-esteem on your work; thinking you’re better or worse than others…” Ultimately, she says, as workaholics, “we stay busy to avoid feelings.”
For many who are genuinely addicted, W.A.’s support network and 12 steps may well offer a way out. But if you’re not ready to attend meetings and find a sponsor, yet sense you’re somewhere you don’t want to be on the spectrum of occupational obsession, how can you inject more life into your leisure hours?
The obvious place to start would be to make sure you have enough of those hours to play with in the first place. If you’re in the ILO’s longest-working 13 percent bracket, it’s worth noting that they set that 48-hour threshold for a reason. It’s long been recognized that beyond 48 hours, most workers’ productivity falls off a cliff. No less an authority than Henry Ford is credited with making this discovery in the 1920s when he reduced his factory workers’ hours from 48 to 40, stating, “We know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six.” More recent research has also suggested that, over time, an average of 48 hours a week is the point at which the grind of overworking starts to have a negative impact on physical health.
Essentially, it’s scientifically pointless to work long hours: Beyond 48 a week, you’re literally killing yourself for zero professional gains. But having freed up time, what do you do with it? How do you reconnect yourself to the social hubbub? Again, the research points to a fairly straightforward solution: Get a hobby. The evidence for outside interests as a shortcut to fulfilment is so strong, in fact, that medical scientists in Britain are using it to heal thyselves, devoting an issue of The Lancet and launching a major campaign last year to encourage overworked doctors and researchers to pursue “passions and achievements” outside work.
Hobbies also were a miracle cure for Bonnie Crater, who, after waking up to her workaholism while pursuing a successful career in Silicon Valley, took up tennis and fundraising for a charity. She found these extra-curricular activities filled a void outside work, and as a bonus, they had the effect of re-energizing her professional life — to such an extent that, she told Pacific Standard, “At my company, hobbies are mandatory — we ask job candidates about their hobbies, and if they don’t have one, they don’t get hired. That’s how strongly we believe in the power of re-charging.”
But as Kodak founder Eastman might have realized too late, along with countless other tragic grandees isolated by their drive to succeed, it’s the time spent nurturing close relationships that’s the most important investment of all. In her time working as a palliative care nurse, Australian writer Bronnie Ware kept track of what her patients, in their final days, told her they wished they’d done differently in life. Number two in her Top Five Regrets of the Dying (second only to “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself”) was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” “This came from every male patient that I nursed,” Ware writes on her website. “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. … All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
It’s a perspective that’s hard to keep hold of perhaps, as inboxes overflow and the day’s tasks mount up. But as J.C. from Workaholics Anonymous puts it, workaholism is “a disease of skewed thinking. We’re so obsessed with ourselves and our work we aren’t able to see the costs to our health, relationships and sense of self.” To refresh that sense, at the top of your daily to-do list, try putting “healthy chunks of downtime” with your partner, your family members and your friends, no matter how busy you think you are.
And if you need a reminder of why those meetings should be your priority over everything else, call them “Kodak moments” for short.