Why do we still worship the workaholics?

We all know someone who apparently relishes working long hours. These people seem to believe that the longer the hours they work, the more exhausted, the more impressive they are. Perhaps it’s just that I’m from the ‘work to live’ camp, but it always puzzles me. Take this recent story courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. Defending W. Bruce Johnson, chief executive of US retail giants Sears and Kmart, against accusations of ineffectiveness, colleagues said he:

“… relishes the challenge of turning around the Sears brand and takes home briefcases bursting with documents every evening. He returns to work between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. every morning, and runs and lifts weights with rank-and-file employees at a ground-level exercise facility that overlooks a pond filled with swans.”

Maybe the swans have a secret therapeutic effect. But to my eye, this tells me Mr Johnson needs to wrestle back control of his life. Does he have kids, friends, a soul mate, indeed any interests or ambitions whatsoever outside of work? I’ve no idea, but you can imagine the impact this punishing daily regime would have if he does. Perhaps he’s discovered the benefits of napping? At the very least he should get himself a good team and start delegating more – that’s the ceo’s privilege after all.

Working consistently long hours is, of course, not the same as working hard. Regular long hours can be damaging to both health and judgement, points out Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University in the UK. It could be that workaholics are victims of what author Margaret Heffernan refers to as ‘wilful blindness’. They simply choose to ignore the body of evidence showing how performance drops off markedly with long working hours. Heffernan says the long hours culture explains why so many bad business decisions happen: everyone’s too tired!

She points out that what goes first is critical thinking, the loss of our ability to discriminate. And Prof. Cooper offers us an amusing counterpoint to those who believe that putting in long hours will somehow end in just reward, courtesy of comedian Woody Allen:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying”

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