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In Praise of Workaholics

By Marty Nemko

It’s usually unfair to call someone a workaholic, a term derived from “alcoholic.” That implies that people who work long hours can’t control themselves, that they’re addicted to work.

Of course, some people are workaholics-- they know perfectly well they should stop but they just can’t. One example: the widget salesman who could earn a perfectly adequate living working just 40 hours a week, but chooses to work 60 even though he’d find other activities more rewarding.

But many people work long hours for a more justifiable reason. Think of how often you’re frustrated that you send email and get no response. So, is it fair to dub as workaholic a person who, in the evening, finds it more rewarding to answer email than to watch sitcoms? Do you really want to give greater status to the millions of Americans who spend their evenings watching CSI, American Idol, and Survivor? Do you really want to give greater status to people who, on vacation, bring People magazine instead of their laptop?

Or let’s say a person works long hours to save up for a home in a safe neighborhood, where the kids can attend the public schools without being shortchanged. Is it fair to call such people workaholics? Or is it fairer to call them caring providers?

Other people work long hours to avoid their depressing apartment or pain-in-the-butt roommate or spouse. Should they be dubbed workaholic, or is it more accurate to describe them as flexible, making the most of a bad situation?

Most impressive, many people work long hours in the service of making the world a better place. Is it fair to dub as workaholics the many scientists who forego pleasure to work long hours searching for a cure for cancer? Even if they’re “addicted” to finding a cure for cancer? How about those who work for nonprofits trying to help poor people? Would you denigrate Mother Teresa as “work-addicted”? How about a doctor or even a career counselor who works evenings so he can help more people? How about even a management trainee who works long hours to ensure her company produces good toilet paper at a fair price? As far as I’m concerned, the more accurate term for all of them is not workaholic, not work-addicted, it’s hero.

In fact, most great achievers deliberately forego balance in favor of pursuing their passion long after lesser lights have gone home. I’ll bet that few Nobel Prize winners work just a 40-hour workweek.

Many people criticize hard workers because they don’t spend enough family time. But the research is clear that what matters is quality time. So, as long as that physician who sees patients five nights a week is, on the weekend, a loving spouse and parent, he or she should be called not a workaholic but a hero.

My wife, Napa County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Barbara Nemko believes that many people denigrate hard workers as workaholics because they feel inferior. It’s much easier to put down a hard worker than to face the reality that they’re lazy.

Let’s start a movement

If we’re going to use a “holic” word for workers, it shouldn’t be for the hard workers. It should be for the lazy ones. Let’s call them “lazyholics.” In fact, let’s start a movement. Every time we meet someone who is minimally productive, refusing to work more than part-time on a cushy job, devoting too much time to golf, cooking, or TV watching, or taking lots of classes without serious intention of using it to prepare for a career, we should call them lazyholics. Maybe then they’ll stop calling productive people workaholics.

A word to those who work long hours

To be modest, many hard workers call themselves workaholics. That unfairly denigrates them and their fellow heroes. Consider substituting, “I really enjoy working,” I’m trying to save up enough to buy a home in a safe neighborhood,” or even “I’m on a mission.”

Also remember that working long hours is not unhealthy; working stressfully is. So, yes, try to be efficient but don’t get hurry sickness: a sense of rushing, impatience. That is not good for the body. Also, beware of anger building up. Sometimes, over a long period, stress and, in turn, anger builds. Try to remember that no single little thing matters that much. If something goes wrong or is too hard, get help or see if there’s a way you could do the project without having to do that hard part. Relax. Even if you’re only working at 85 percent efficiency, you who work long hours, to me at least, are still a hero.

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