Work and Health: The Effects of Workaholism

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In a job like this, work and health—good health—won't be compatible.

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

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
(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
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

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

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.