“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” —Egyptian proverb, 2400BC
Life is a blur. There’s never enough time. Myra and I work ten hour days at least five days a week. Sometimes weekends. She teaches middle school with larger and larger class sizes. I’m a software engineer who’s expected to do the work of four people, three of whom have been laid off due to downsizing. I was given a promotion, a raise and was told I’m doing a great job. Oh lucky me! Praise and money I don’t need. I want more time with my family! We have a nanny who cooks for the kids. When I get home around eight after an hour commute I barely have energy to tuck our two boys into bed. Tommy and John live hectic lives too. They have soccer practice, peewee baseball traveling league, hours of homework, and first communion classes at our church. They are by far the cutest seven and nine year-olds but I hardly ever see them. Myra and the nanny run all the errands and trade off parenting duties. We have a great house, the best kids, and good jobs but none of us ever get to really enjoy what we really have. I can’t even remember the last time Myra and I went out for dinner alone. Even with free time on the weekends we’re either doing yet another home remodeling project or carting our kids off to another practice. We’re stuck. With a three car garage, a humungous mortgage and two student loans we’re still paying off, I don’t know how any of this is going to change. The other day when I complained to Myra about how life is passing us by, she said, “You mean there’s more to life than work?!”
We Americans are the most overworked and over-stressed people on the face of the earth. We don’t know how to stop and smell the roses. Idle time terrifies us. Many of us have 14 days a year for vacation—much less than European countries have—yet on average we only use about 10 of them. Most of us—both ourselves and our spouses—work 50 hours a week and feel chronically overworked. Many of us have two jobs just to make ends meet and work even longer hours. With e-mails and cell phones the boundary between our home lives get easily blurred. It’s like we’re always working. We’re like dogs on a treadmill constantly proving our value as persons. Yet we never succeed in proving our worth. We simply live for another day of trying to be productive. This is one fine mess we have gotten ourselves into.
Impact of overworking
Before we look for ways out of this fine mess it’s essential to grasp the impact of working too much. Make no mistake, turning Jack into a dull boy through excess work comes with a high price tag. Basically overwork saps our souls. We humans are fundamentally wired to be social creatures. Our brain development, physical health and growth, intellectual complexity, and social adjustment are all fundamentally dependent on our emotional connections with one another, especially those in our families. When we don’t connect, we don’t grow and we become seriously distressed. Another way of saying the same thing is that having family meals together is more than just about enjoying good food in a group. We need heartfelt connections even more than food!
Unfortunately, the frequency of family meals together has halved in the last 20 years. Too often, overworked family members are off doing their own thing or else are physically present at the dinner table but aren’t emotionally present to each other due to Jack-being-turned-into-a-dull-boy problem. What this means is that private lives of children are not really seen and children tell parents what they want to hear. American children live incredibly isolated lives in overworking families and they suffer emotionally.
Ultimately most excess work is a running away from ourselves.Sadly, many devoted parents are so guilt-ridden with their work schedules that they bribe their children with material goods, rely more on electronica as surrogate parents and never get around to really knowing their children as vulnerable human beings who need their help. Ultimately children give up on parents, settle for the bribes, overuse electronica and become depressed and symptomatic with eating disorders, self-mutilation, and drug abuse. In the last 40 years teen suicides have increased fourfold. Many of us well-meaning and overwrought parents forget that the main purpose of families is to nurture our children, not help them shop at the Mall of America.
Losing our children’s souls is not the only byproduct of overwork. We also lose our own souls and the sacredness of our married lives. Many of us who lead driven lives are woefully out of touch with our bodies, haven’t the foggiest idea of what we are feeling or why we do what we do, and are more apt to reflect on our cellphones than where we are going in life or what our lives stand for. Don’t even get me going on married life in overworked families. Let’s just say the epidemic lack of sex between spouses these days just about says it all! The saddest part of all is that many of us so-called dulled Jacks are really pretty good people who could have done so much better for ourselves if we weren’t working so much. Thankfully, our souls are tucked away somewhere inside of us for safekeeping awaiting our discovery.
Signals of work obsession
Chances are you already know if you work too much. What you may not know is how your excessive work affects your loved ones and you yourself. Examine the following signals for some guidance. You are likely to have a work obsession if:
- You equate your personal success with how productive you are
- You feel compelled to put in longer and longer hours just to get caught up at work
- Your keep promising yourself that once this project is done your worklife will be easier
- Your sense of humor is shot and you often feel flat
- You dread Monday mornings
- You are constantly going from one task to the next at home even when you’re supposed to be relaxing
- Your idea of a good time is to start a big project and you shun idle time like the plague
- You constantly enlist others in your big projects as a way of being with them
- Your work is a refuge from the bigger worries in your personal life
- You can’t sit still or relax and have to always be on the go
- Your personal life at home is regularly interrupted by cellphone calls, or critical work projects over weekends
- Your spouse and children seem remote to you, take you for granted and constantly expect you to be the “pack horse” of the family
- You can’t say no to your boss at work or customers who need you
- You neglect your physical health, have poor eating habits, and are obese
- Your sex life is a shadow of its former self or nonexistent
- You either don’t do vacation or see them as work opportunities
- You have no real connection to God or a spiritual presence
How did it all get like this?
Several factors contribute to work obsessions. Todays cultural forces turn relatively stable people into working zombies. Many young people try to do the right thing and follow in the work ethic of their parents in making new lives. However these days the world of parents isn’t the work world of today. Despite claims to the contrary, many workplace settings aren’t family friendly. Too many young adults are expected to devote their entire personal lives to the profit needs of their workplace. If they don’t do it, somebody else will. Nowadays profit comes before people.
Also, we live in an image-conscious, materialistic culture where happiness is equated with wealth and fame. Too many of us workers chase the proverbial “carrot on the stick” and pursue wealth at all costs only to realize later that money isn’t the key to happiness. This is especially true for people who carry large personal debt, want to have it all now and have poor money management habits. Doing with less is a totally foreign concept to such folks. Finally, some of us have addictive tendencies in general. Thanks to our early family training and biology we are simply wired to overwork. Certainly such excessiveness isn’t seen as a problem in our culture. After all how can you fault somebody who is too productive or is a good family provider?
However, excess working is always a problem—a potentially lethal one. When you get right down to it, loved ones typically prefer to have mom and dad at home spending time with them than playing alone with their X-boxes. Unfortunately some adults work to get away from family emotional closeness as it is too much connected to unattended grief in their personal histories. Ultimately most excess work is a running away from ourselves.
Making small changes to get your life back
Obviously just reading this article and taking it to heart is a start. If these words apply to you, they probably apply to you in more ways than you already realize.
Making big changes is not the way to go. Few of us can just up and quit our jobs. Such decisions need to be coordinated with our partners. Balancing work with life, not unemployment, is a desirable goal of overcoming work obsession. It’s often best to receive ongoing guidance and emotional encouragement from others who understand overwork.
It’s wise to consult with a professional helper who understands work addiction, and attend several 12-Step Workaholics Anonymous meetings. The real experts on this topic are people who successfully struggle with it. It may be helpful to read, Working Ourselves to Death by Diane Fassel.
Remember that words of Paul Tsongas, a deceased U.S. Senator who once said: “I’ve never met a man who on his deathbed said ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office'”.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).
This article was first published in the June 2007 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commission on some of the links on this page, at no cost to you.
Last Updated on March 3, 2022