the culture of workaholism

In writing a review essay about organizational culture and family leave policies, I am always continually struck by the desire–on the part of workers–to assume the responsibilities, hours, roles. It’s a part of their identity within the institution and in their personal lives, and how they define themselves. I am a good worker!

Culture is the hardest to assess and theorize. Yet, there’s some indicia, or “artifacts” of culture, as well as factors that show how “strong” or “weak” an organizational culture is among its management and employees.

And, sometimes the clues are pretty clear: after-eight emails are sent. Work starts up again, at home, after dinner. Emails are sent back with the requested figures or analysis. More emails are sent to the worker either to say A-OK or fix that. This goes on late into the night. The worker keeps on working past midnight. The worker fails to come over to his partner’s place (mine) because he is still working. His partner is working herself, on said review essay. It is a ridiculous, never ending cycle. Occasionally I hate TD’s job, but I feel bad for even saying that, because my first priority, at least with respect to him, is to be a supportive partner, not the academic who says “your organization, its values, and its operations are exactly what I think is wrong and why I do research on work/life balance and family responsibilities discrimination!” And really, who am I to talk, when I am up at 1:14 am?

Sometimes this doesn’t come off well, and I sound petulant, grumpy, and disappointed when we can’t even merge our schedules somewhere around 11 pm or 12 am. I sound this way because I am, and I feel bad–I don’t blame TD, I blame his company, but it’s hard to disentangle that at 12:30 am, and I know that I’ve just made him feel worse and on top of that, guilty, for doing what he has to do. He’s frustrated enough, and I pile on. But I’m not disappointed at TD. I am disappointed by the organizational values and policies that reward 90 hour weeks and face time, and yet I can’t really justify, other than to say “this disparately impacts persons with family responsibilities, who generally tend to be women, and does a grave disservice to the structure and health of families and children.” It’s a pretty anti-capitalist argument, and I am hard pressed to come up with economic arguments (that don’t involve salving replacements like flex-time or telecommuting) to the charge that “well, how else will the work be done? This is a startup. This is how things are done. I have to do this. I have no choice.” And given the current lay of the land, he’s right. He has no choice. And I have no choice but to support him and deal with it. I don’t want to support his organization, but I want to support him.

So what do I do? Just like my cognitive dissonance with work/family–argue for one thing and do the opposite. Just as I’m going to stick my kid in day care, hire a housekeeper and nanny (outsourcing the “wifely” duties), and work 70 hour weeks to get tenure, so too do I–we–just suck it up and live with this bum deal. I don’t blame TD at all. This is what he has to do, and I am supportive, just as he’s supportive of me when I have deadlines, conference/grant proposals, and the like. I will be the first to say that the situation sucks–but I live with it, because there’s nothing else for me to do, and while I have intellectual and principled commitments to my work on workplace equity, I also have a just-as-strong personal commitment to be a supportive partner to TD.

So, I just deal with it, the way I am know he deals with all of my career requirements. Academia, while more flexible in hours than most jobs, is no less demanding in terms of its requirements. Half of the job are tasks that don’t really go to how you are evaluated for your job, and so all those administrative tasks and committees don’t get the tenure piece done, and there are all those conferences. Teaching, office hours, preparing lectures–this is not writing. To me, it’s the most enjoyable part of academia, but it doesn’t get the article done, and if you are spending your day doing administrative/teaching duties, then you have to write at night or the weekends on occasion. I work at night all the time, and yet I get upset when he has to, mainly because I think of his job as having definite hours and parameters, whereas mine is unstructured–I made dinner in the afternoon, so I can work at night, but this makes sense because I’m an academic. Why are you working at night? Blah blah. I am an awful partner. There’s also the fun of dragging your partner halfway across the country away from his nexus of friends and family, and thankfully he is not another academic who might throw the “two bodies two cities” wrench in the equation.

Living apart helps us deal, because we each have our own work stations and retreats, and come together only when we really can be together in company and not merely presence. As often as we can, although I tend to get upset if we go for more than three days apart. We actually have the life part of work/life, and it’s nice. That said, so often are we bogged down by work, that it would be nice to work side-by-side in the same place, and at least have that comforting presence. We occasionally do this, but it seems vaguely dissatisfying to us both, even though I imagine that will be how it is for the rest of our lives. But it is a mark of how our society engineers the meaning of work and “worker,” that I would gladly take this, because it’s better than nothing at all and if I can’t change the meaning of “work,” then I will change the meaning of “life.” Better than nothing. Or is it? Again, my intellectual and principled commitments to workplace equity and the restructuring of the meaning of work often go out the window when I think of the more pressing (to me) personal needs of myself and my partner. So yeah, I’d rather us work side by side than apart, but still, I should get more upset that we have to work the late hours rather than be upset that we are doing so apart.

I have no idea why I’m still up, because I have no organization other than the loose one of the school and university, which I avoid by not hanging out there. But the values are inbred, and so I’m up working, and I know he is too, and so maybe I’ll see him tomorrow night before he goes out of town. I am more hopeful about finding some intersection in our schedules than I am about ever fixing this problem. This really almost makes me want to shift research focus to something entirely different where I might be able to make a difference and not live a dishonest-to-my-arguments life.

3 thoughts on “the culture of workaholism”

  1. Interesting thoughts! I taught a work and culture course to undergrads last year, and as part of the work I had them read Engineering Culture. One of the big take-aways was the way ‘stress’ was managed by the organization. By putting project work on their employees, rather than hourly work, the organization shifted responsibility to complete the work from the org to the employee. Then stress became the way to manage employees – they had all kinds of literature on how to avoid burnout, what to do to avoid undue stress, things like that. The upshot for my students was that the organization was telling employees: you will be stressed out. If you are not stressed out, you’re not working hard enough. If you are too stressed out, it’s your fault since we have all kinds of resources to help you manage your stress.

    Interestingly, afterwards one student showed up with similar brochures from our college (how to avoid stress, managing stress, etc.). She said she used think that she was just getting stressed out, but now she uses a direct noun and verb: Barnard is stressing her out. I think that’s a healthier way to portray the agency in this interaction, even if you both a) like the position you’re in; and b) have no power to alter the structural sources of the stress.

    As a side note, after all this I asked the class if they’d prefer a job where they could ‘commit 100% of themselves’ to the job and be potentially overwhelmed with work, or a job where they ‘just gave their time’ and would otherwise not really take on their work as their identity. Unanimous, in favor of the former.


  2. Good points. What I’ll add: Think about your own competitiveness and your own values. Not disputing the organization pressures, but our own competitiveness feeds into that. You can survive in most occupations with boundaries around your personal space, you just have to be willing to pay the occupational price. My spouse works in a growing tech company still headed by its founder and mostly staffed by very young people; the work culture is 80 hours a week. He decided after a while that did not want to work that hard. He does a good job when he’s working, and he’ll put in long hours for short term deadlines, but he won’t work long weeks week after week. He is thus not eligible for management and does not get the big raises and bonuses that other people get, but he has a job and does his work. The firm explicitly says “There is a place in this company for people who work 40 hours a week.” At the same time, they make it explicit that advancement and bonuses will go to the people who work more hours and the “insider culture” in the firm is long hours. The boss once sent an email over a holiday weekend inviting everyone who got the email to a party at her house, saying “this is to reward the people who work weekends.” So strong organizational pressure. But my spouse resists it because he has decided on his own values.

    Academics are in a different structure that produces similar results. We are very competitive and there is always more work to do. If we want personal space and a personal life, we have to affirmatively choose to take it, and be willing to let the people who work longer hours reap more benefits than we reap. As long as we want to win at the game of individual competitive advantage, we are on the treadmill.

    When our students complain about how much work we give them, we just say they are not serious and don’t value the academy or the intellectual life.


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