Addicted to work? What’s the problem?

Marketplace Staff Jun 2, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Are those type A personalities forced to do all that work? Or are they perhaps . . . workaholics? Commentator Lucy Kellaway says longer hours are good for you.

LUCY KELLAWAY: The other day I met a recovering addict. His drug of choice had cost him his health and his marriage and left him a burnt-out and bonkers wreck. It wasn’t alcohol or crack cocaine: it was work.

This guy had been a very successful investment banker. By the age of 34, he was waking up at 5 a.m. in airport hotels, visiting four or five countries a week, sleeping four hours a night. After three years of this his life had caved in.

Now this guy has founded an addiction specialist consultancy to help others like him. But as he told me the details, I found myself edging away. Surely, I said, work isn’t an addiction, or if it is, it isn’t one of the lethal ones.

He looked at me and shook his head. Lots of investment bankers are serious work addicts, he insisted. The addiction takes hold because excessive work is rewarded. But work, he says, is dangerous because it masks depression.

I agree. But to me, this is one of the beauties of it. If you try to drown depression in booze you behave badly, throw up, get a hangover and become more depressed.

But if you escape it through work, you earn some money and get a sense of purpose which might help the depression a bit. For me, hard work is not just rewarded, it can be rewarding too.

Addiction, insisted my new friend, is something that you go on doing despite the consequences — which in this case are particularly lethal as they harm the addicts’ families.

I am not so sure about this either. The families I know where the father is a 70-hour-a-week investment banker look rather less dysfunctional than most.

They have lots of money and tend to stay more married than families when the father is, say, unemployed. And if the kids don’t see much of one parent, then so long as the other is around a bit more, all can go smoothly.

For most investment bankers who work silly hours there is a trade off. They do ludicrous amounts of work and earn a king’s ransom. That is the deal and I imagine they all — even their families — understand it.

RYSSDAL: Lucy Kellaway is a columnist for The Financial Times. She comes to us by special arrangement with that newspaper.

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