There is a colleague I often bump into at the university where I teach, and we exchange a similar greeting every time. "I stayed up past midnight reading application forms for today's meeting," she says. And I answer, "I got up at dawn to prepare for a class." We groan, laugh lightly and rush off to our busy day—until the next morning's story of being too busy.
A friend in Senegal tells me that people there address one another very differently—family to family. "Blessings on your father and mother," one might say upon seeing a friend, "and blessings on your mother's parents, and blessings on your father's parents, and blessings on your children." It is a pleasant greeting, and it takes a while to say it. So why do we Americans greet one another in our grim, rapid-fire way, workload to workload?
Because overworking has become our national way of life. More of us are clocking longer hours, and we seem to be packing our free time with extra activity. According to a report from the International Labour Office, Americans now put in nearly 2,000 hours per year, which comes out to two weeks more than our counterparts in Japan, formerly the long-work-hours capital of the world. The Hilton Time Values Project reports that in a national survey it conducted, 26 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "I consider myself a workaholic."
What drives us to stay so busy? Some of the pressure to overwork comes from the boss and the need to pay rent. But when I asked those I interviewed for my book The Time Bind
why they worked long hours, many of them told me, "We do it to ourselves." Indeed, some of the pressure to overwork comes from ourselves. Some may feel addicted to the adrenaline rush of doing too much, and at the last minute; others seek appreciation from a supervisor or co-worker. And still others see work as a measure of their value. They think that if they do more, get better, go faster, stay at the office later, they'll be worth more—and be happier.
But many who struggle still aren't happy. And with every additional task, we become a little less able to tell what it is that we really feel. What emotions would we experience if we weren't working ourselves to death? What wishes drive us? What fantasies hitch themselves to our continual busyness? Only when we step away from our frenzy can we know.
It’s not hard to see some of the reason we’re tempted to stay so busy: Around us the forces of workaholism abound. For one thing, the decline of unions (to whom we owe the very idea of the weekend) and the rise of the $7-an-hour job mean that more of us have to work longer hours. In addition, for the middle class, the emergence of company-engineered office cultures, replete with team-building sessions, makes us want to stick around the office. And both at home and at work, technology has become friend and foe. We think we’re saving time with microwaves, cell phones, beepers, computers and voice mail, but often these things help us create the illusion if getting somewhere—and they foster a chain of constant activity. We’re really just squeezing extra activity into every minute that we gain. Perhaps that’s why such a cheerful, nervous prattle and an unrepentant pride surround the topic of overwork.
Next: Why we become workaholics