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Workaholics Enjoy Themselves, An Expert Says: It's Their Family and Friends Who Pay

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Psychologist Marilyn Machlowitz, 27, first heard the word “workaholic” when her father called her one. The occasion was the end of her freshman year at Princeton, when she declined his suggestion that she backpack through Europe that summer. She took on three summer jobs instead. Today Machlowitz is the author of Workaholics (Addison-Wesley, $5.95), in which she concludes that work fiends are often happy and emotionally healthy. The catch: They often make life miserable for those around them. The daughter of a research chemist and his math teacher wife, Machlowitz was raised in Philadelphia, and after Princeton went on to a master’s and doctorate in psychology from Yale. “I found that there was a dearth of material about people who liked their work,” Machlowitz recalls. “I thought we could learn about people who were happy with what they were doing—just as in medicine we learn from a healthy body as well as a diseased one. “Away from her job as a social psychologist with the New York Life Insurance Company, she swims, goes to the theater and takes walking tours of Manhattan that combine her enthusiasms for exercise and architecture. She spoke with Patricia Burstein of PEOPLE.

What is a workaholic?

It is someone who loves and lives to work. Contrary to the stereotype, the workaholic need not be narrow, negative or tyrannical, but someone with a zest for work that spills over into other areas of life.

But isn’t something wrong with workaholics?

In some cases, the pattern underlying workaholism is an obsessive-compulsive neurosis. These neurotics are rigid in their thinking, endlessly active, concerned with being in control and prone to engage in ritualistic behavior as if they were living machines. For these people, obsessive overwork is the solution, and if it makes them happy, what’s wrong with that?

Is the term “workaholic” defined by hours at work?

No. The attitude toward work is more telling than the amount of time spent at it. Though 18 hours a day is not uncommon for the workaholic, such a measurement is misleading.


A workaholic is not the moonlighter who needs a second job to support a family. Neither is it the accountant who puts in 16-hour days until April 15 and then slows down. Nor is it the new career woman trying too hard. A workaholic is also not a corporate climber, but someone more interested in the substance of work than the job or title. Often those who think the term is glamorous and apply it to themselves are not true workaholics.

How did you conduct your research?

It began as a master’s thesis concerned with workaholics in the field of management consulting, then as a doctoral project broadened to include a variety of fields such as advertising, law, medicine, banking, the media and secretarial work. I talked to about 100 workaholics, aged 27 to 67, as well as to some of their families and colleagues.

How did you locate your subjects?

It was through newspaper and magazine profiles and word of mouth. I did find some workaholics the day of the 1977 blackout in New York City. One was arguing with a building maintenance engineer about getting into the building and walking up 25 flights of stairs. I saw one man working with a calculator on the sidewalk and another holding a meeting in an air-conditioned car. The point is that the workaholic will go to the office when there is no external reason or requirement that he or she be there.

Are there many female workaholics?

There have always been women workaholics, in and out of the home. But now that they are no longer restricted to the car or steno pool they are more visible. One woman who used to clean between the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush now shows the same devotion to detail in her work as a fashion designer.

What are common traits of a workaholic?

The most telling thing is the way the person uses time. There is a tendency to do more than one thing. They shave while driving to work, take business to the bathroom or the beach, read magazines while glancing at television. Meals are functional and fast. There is always a need to beat the clock, to use seconds that other people don’t notice. No matter how late they go to sleep, they get up early.

Do they take vacations?

They live for the 50 weeks a year they work rather than the two weeks they take off. Unlike co-workers who might try to add a day or two to a business trip, they rush right back. Workaholics don’t know about slow times, downtimes, weekends, holidays. They prefer labor to leisure.

How do they feel about retirement?

They shudder at the thought.

Do workaholics function better as entrepreneurs or corporate beings?

They do well in both roles. They can go out on their own because they need not worry about lack of discipline or drive. In corporations they’re better instigators than followers and thus do not like to be under anyone’s thumb.

Can they burn out?

A workaholic never thinks that he or she is overworked. They stay on an even keel, never slackening their schedule. If the work ceases to challenge them, they find something more exciting to do.

What is their self-image?

While they all seemed extremely intelligent and articulate, they sometimes did not realize how smart they were. They thought it was only by dint of hard work that they had gotten as far as they had.

Does this create health problems?

There is contradictory evidence about the effects of overwork. But for the average workaholic it would probably be more stressful to slow down. Surprisingly, the workaholics were extremely fit and trim. Those who exercised saw it as a way to get a second wind. If they jog at 5 a.m. they’ll have more energy for work.

Do they have a sex drive equal to their passion for work?

I guess I was too reticent to ask about this. From what I’ve read—and there’s not too much on it—there can be a tendency to put sex on the bottom of the list as “Well, maybe I’ll get to that tonight.”

What about spouses?

The people who live with workaholics, rather than the workaholics themselves, pay the price. Often the families feel that the workaholic is away because he doesn’t want to be with them, instead of being pleased that he is lucky enough to love what he does for a living.

What can a spouse do to change a workaholic, or at least make family life more tolerable?

Family members should make every effort to be exposed to the workaholic’s work world. They should meet for lunch if possible. Even a small child can be taken to the office, shop or lab on a weekend. To make time together enjoyable, they must simplify household chores—pay bills and shop by phone, for example, and buy a microwave oven. Most important, they should anticipate spending a lot of time on their own. As one stockbroker told me, “I may be a lousy father, but when Merrill Lynch needs me, I’m here.”

Is the workaholic a successful parent?

It is easier for him to be a mentor than a parent, because there is more distance. I have heard workaholics talk in glowing terms about students and subordinates and yet never speak with such delight about their own offspring.

What happens to these children?

It can go either way. They can be carbon copies or beach bums. I think a lot depends on the attitude expressed by the workaholic parent. If the workaholic admits he has a good time, the child may see work in positive terms.

Is workaholism always learned on the job?

No. It begins in the early years with the child who never took naps, did not have to be told to do homework and took on extra projects on top of the academic workload.

How are they perceived by colleagues?

Usually co-workers like to badmouth them instead of saying to themselves, “What’s wrong with me that I don’t love my job that much or want to work as hard?”

Do workaholics fear failure?

Yes—they’ve never failed and because of this it’s more intimidating. Many also suspect that deep down they are actually lazy. They keep driving themselves because if they let up, they are afraid their natural laziness will do them in.

What are the rewards of workaholism?

Money and status are just score-cards, not a goal. Workaholics are more interested in the pursuit than the accomplishment.

Is there an average number of days they call in sick?