There has been growing pushback against long hours lately, and for good reasons. Consistently putting in 60+ hour weeks isn’t good for productivity or performance and your loved ones probably aren’t thrilled that you’re always at the office, a problem that many feel keeps women particularly out of certain careers.

The criticism has even plumbed our motivations for putting in such epic hours. A recent HBR Blog Network post by law professor Joan C, Williams claims that superhuman hours are mostly a way of showing off.

"The cult of busy smartness," she calls the phenomenon. "How do the elite signal to each other how important they are? 'I am slammed' is a socially acceptable way of saying 'I am important.' Fifty years ago, Americans signaled class by displaying their leisure: think banker's hours (9 to 3). Today, the elite-- journalist Chrystia Freeland calls them 'the working rich"-- display their extreme schedules.'"

The cachet of extreme hours is so great that time use expert Laura Vanderkam has found that in conversation people often inflate the number of hours they work in much the same way you’d buy a knockoff purse to falsely signal your income or taste.

Conspicuous workaholism is often a status symbol, but is it sometimes something healthier?

Williams is certainly on to something, but in Big Think recently Pamela Haag pushes back, arguing that for others long hours aren’t always a sign of unhealthy ideas about success or identity insecurity but a simple reflection of the joy they take in their work:

We should recognize that we have among us a very small number of professionals or creative, inventive types, both men and women, who are doing things that will require their “last full measure of devotion,” and that there is no policy, rule, therapy, behavior modification, vacation, maternity leave, or benefit that will help them, if help is even the correct term. Because I don’t think that these Obsession Outliers need help. They’re the creative thinkers who push the boundaries of scientific research, technology, literature, arts, medicine, charity and activism, the intellectual disciplines, spiritual devotion, or music. They’re doing something that engages them fully, vitally, irreducibly, and in their souls. In the best of circumstances their perhaps life-ravaging obsession produces cultural value, truth, and beauty... I think it’s important not to pathologize that particular kind of single-minded focus and obsession, rare though it is, or make it the casualty of equality...

I’m trying to protect the sliver of obsession outliers, for whom it’s neither a surprise nor socially symptomatic that they work all the time. They aren’t logging insane hours because of masculine identity issues, or to display their class status. They do it because they’re flat-out driven, by the content of what they do. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll be the beneficiaries of their irrational obsessions.

There are some key caveats to Haag’s defense of workaholics.

First, it probably doesn’t apply to you. This type of healthy workaholic is rare, she insists. Second, even if workaholism isn’t unhealthy to your psychology that doesn’t mean it’s not going to damage your family life. "Many [obsessive workers] might choose not to have children; others have spouses who do the heavy-lifting of parenthood," she writes. "For others, their children will have a childhood defined by an absent parent, and a nanny. That is not the best fate imaginable. Nor is it the worst." 

Do you agree the distinction between long hours based on unhealthy and unnecessary status signaling and long hours based on passion often gets lost in discussion of work-life balance?


Published on: Jun 4, 2013