Work and Health: The Effects of Workaholism

Research into work and health show that under the wrong conditions the effects of workaholism can be very harmful to individual workers and their families.
By Dr. Tom Ferguson
September/October 1981
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Dr. Tom Ferguson was an early advocate for medical self care.
RICHARD ALLEN
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After her freshman year at college, Marilyn Machlowitz returned home to take on not one, not two, but three summer jobs.

"You know what you are?" her father commented. "A workaholic."

That was the first time Marilyn heard the term ...but it wasn't to be the last. She went on to do her doctoral dissertation on the subject and, subsequently, to write a book called Workaholics: Living With Them, Working With Then. (Addison-Wesley, 1980).

One of the first surprises turned up by Ms. Machlowitz's research was the discovery that, as a group, the workaholics she interviewed were "remarkably satisfied with their lives." Indeed, according to one study cited in the book, 70% of those who rated their job satisfaction as "good" were equally happy with the rest of their lives. Only 14% of those unhappy with their work felt more pleased when off the job. "Satisfactions with work and with life," Machlowitz concludes, "are more apt to be intertwined than mutually exclusive."

According to Machlowitz, four basic elements govern the interaction of work and health, and determine whether individual workaholics are contented or unhappy: [1] the manner in which their families accept their work habits, [2] the amount of autonomy and variety that exists in their work, [3] the degree to which their personal skills and work styles match those required by their jobs, and [4) their general state of health.

The workaholics who were satisfied with these four aspects of their lives generally felt good about themselves as well. But those who'd had difficulties with one or more elements were more likely to experience the negative effects of workaholism. They risked what might be termed the three occupational hazards of the intensely self-driven worker: burnout, family problems, and heart disease.

From Brownout to Burnout

Psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger is a specialist in worker  burnout. He calls it "the consequence of a work situation where the person feels he's banging his head against the wall day after day, year after year." Burnout is likely to occur when nonstop labor and devotion fail to produce the expected satisfactions or rewards.

A full-fledged burnout resembles the condition traditionally known as a nervous breakdown. However, for a lot of workaholics the emotional damage falls short of total burnout, even though they may from time to time—or even quite frequently-experience the early stages of this problem. Medical anthropologist John-Henry Pfifferling has adopted the term "brownout" to describe this type of low-level exhaustion. (See the sidebar, "Brownout/Burnout Inventory", to determine whether you're risking one of these occupational hazards.)

Families Pay the Price

One of the most striking findings of Marilyn Machlowitz's study was that, on a day-to-day basis, it's not the workaholics who pay the biggest price for their busy lifestyles. Rather, it's the people who live with them, who suffer most. Because the dedicated doers love their jobs so much, they tend to spend less time at home than most people. As a consequence, their families often feel that the workaholics don't want to be with the folks at home.

Machlowitz offers some constructive suggestions for families of labor addicts:

Write yourself into the workaholic's appointment calendar to take advantage of his or her tendency to schedule everything. (Make dates for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner.)

Arrange social plans that are difficult to cancel ...for example, buy a season ticket for a theater, symphony, or sports series. (And try to negotiate an agreement that, if your hard worker breaks such a date, he or she must pay some previously set penalty.}

Insist on vacations, plan them well in advance, and ask for a predetermined limit to the number of phone calls the workaholic can make to his or her place of business. Or better yet, travel to a spot with no telephone access at ail

It Works Both Ways

In the same vein, workaholics need to realize that their families may sometimes feel as though they play second fiddle to the person's job. So, in addition to limiting the time spent on work, an eager laborer should do everything possible to familiarize the rest of the family with his or her employment world. Small children might be encouraged to visit the workplace on weekends. Older offspring might even enjoy spending some time at the job "helping out."

Furthermore, chronic workers should be sure to show interest and concern in domestic affairs by pitching in when they are at home. They should take an active part in housework without having to be asked (or expecting any medals for doing their fair share). Workaholics can demonstrate that families count by arranging to spend time doing some of the things those loved ones enjoy. Who knows? The hard worker may like the new experience of accompanying his or her spouse to the opera, or surprising a soccer-crazy daughter by dropping in on some of her practices as well as showing her big game.

Heart Disease

Being a workaholic may or may not increase a person's risk of contracting coronary heart disease. According to cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, much depends on whether the individual is a "Type A" or "Type B" personality. The hallmarks of the former class are excessive competitive drive and intense time urgency, characteristics common to the problem workaholic. Type B individuals, on the other hand, may also be hardworking, but are more easygoing; they exhibit no excessive competitiveness or overwhelming sense of time pressure.

Friedman and Rosenman accumulated an impressive body of evidence indicating that Type A people are as much as seven times more likely to develop coronary heart disease as are their Type B counterparts. To reduce their disease risk, compulsively self-driven individuals should learn to slow down and enjoy life. The cardiologists recommend such exercises as sitting and doing nothing ...establishing (or reestablishing) connections with art, nature, friends, family, and tradition ...and—in general—savoring life rather than racing through it.

Vacations can also provide workaholics with valuable opportunities to gain perspective on their lives and realize how much of their so-called leisure time is actually spent working ...although many problem workaholics find it difficult to let themselves be "lazy" enough to take—or enjoy—a holiday. To cite one such instance, reformed workaholic Michael Phillips was able to make a decision to reshape his life and leave his high-pressure career as a banking executive only after an understanding friend sent him away on a cruise ship.

"I'd never been able to sit still," Phillips recalls. "Once I was on board that ship and realized that there was literally nothing to do, I just about had a nervous breakdown. I even tried to get a helicopter to come pick me up. Finally, I was faced with a choice between cracking up and simply sitting in a deck chair and watching the ocean for several days." That enforced leisure gave Phillips the opportunity to think through his life and undertake some constructive changes.

Lucky Workaholics

In many ways, satisfied workaholics are lucky people. Not only do they tend to love their careers, but the "cure" for their characteristic problems—which involves learning to relax, take vacations, and spend more quality time with their families and friends—can be rich with opportunity as well. Those workaholics who are able to make needed changes in their lives before serious physical or emotional problems arise can quietly agree with Winston Churchill's observation: "Those whose work and pleasure are one are Fortune's favorite children."


Brownout/Burnout Inventory

When you give yourself this quiz, think back over the past six months. Consider your workplace ... your family ... and the social situations you've encountered. Have you been noticing changes for the worse in yourself or in the world around you? Allow about 30 seconds to think over each question. To answer it, assign a number from 1 (for little or no change) to 5 (for a great deal of change).

[1] Do you tire more easily than before and feel fatigued rather than energetic?

[2] Are people annoying you more often by telling you, "You don't look so good lately"?

[3] Are you working harder and harder but accomplishing less and less?

[4] Are you increasingly cynics and disenchanted?

[5] Are you more often invaded by a sadness you're not able to explain?

[6] Do you consistently find yourself forgetting more appointments, deadlines, and/or personal possessions?

[7] Are you increasingly irritable ...more short-tempered ... more disappointed in the people around you?

[8] Are you seeing your close friends and family members less frequently?

[9] Are you so busy that you do even routine things—like making phone calls, reading reports, or sending Christmas cardsless and less?

[10] Are you suffering more physical complaints ...such as aches, pains, headaches, or lingering colds?

[11] Do you feel more disoriented than you used to when the activity of a day comes to a halt?

[12] Is joy more elusive?

[13] Are you less able to laugh at a joke about yourself?

[14] Does sex more frequently seem like more trouble than it's worth?

[15] Do you have less to say to people?

Don't let a high total score on your answers alarm you, but do pay attention to it. Burnout isn't irreversible, no matter how far along it is, but remember: A high number signifies that you ought to start being kinder to yourself ...and the sooner you do so, the better your life and your family's life will likely be.

15-25: You're doing fine. 26-35: There are things you should be watching. 36-50: You are in a state of brownout. 51-65: You are burning out. Over 65: You're in a dangerous state that's threatening to your physical and mental well being.

(adapted by permission from Burn Out: The Melancholia of High Achievement by Herbert J. Freudenberger with Geraldine Richelson, Anchor Press, 1980)   


In 1976, Tom Ferguson—then a fourth-year medical student at Yale—launched a magazine called Medical Self-Care, which he hoped would serve as "a Whole Earth Catalog of the best medical books, tools, and resources." 

Tom spoke of his plans for the publication and of his conviction that self-care could raise the general level of health in this country and lower our inflated levels of medical spending in a MOTHER EARTH NEWS interview, and left no doubt that he would work toward making those "dreams"come true.

Well, Tom Ferguson is Doctor Ferguson now, and the medical self-care "movement" — as well as Tom's magazine — has flourished. People are beginning to assume more responsibility for their own well-being and are eager for information that will help them take better care of their bodies.

So in an effort to provide just such very necessary data, MOTHER EARTH NEWS offers this regular feature by Tom Ferguson, M.D.

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