Scene from a job interview ...
"Well, Miss So-and-so, your re'sume' looks terrific, you seem to have had great success in your prior jobs, your references are impeccable, and the people here who have met you think you'll make a fine employe and coworker. But before we make our final decision, let me ask you a difficult question:
"What would you say is your major weakness?"
Miss So-and-so lowers her head, looks away a little shyly, and, with a smile playing at the corner of her mouth, confronts the personnel person with the awful truth.
"I guess some would say I'm a bit of a workaholic," she answers, and then breaks into a broad grin. "I just don't know when to stop working and just go home."
And then she gets hired.
Wrong. This time she doesn't, no matter what the career advice books say. Not in this story, anyway.
The age of the workaholic, which dawned roughly a decade ago, may soon be over. There is a growing feeling in some quarters that the shiny badge of honor that used to be worn by hard-core workaholics has started to lose some of its luster.
"It used to be considered a really wonderful desired trait in employes," says June Baldino Siegler of the American Management Associations. "People would say, 'If only I had 100 more employes like that.' Now there's a lot more sophistication about the effect of stress on the employe and the organization."
Not that workaholism should be confused with working hard. "You have to differentiate between workaholism and -- let's coin a word here -- workeffectivism," says Ben Borne, a management consultant from Chicago, who firmly believes in the benefits of "hard work and long hours."
"It's important to separate work enthusiasts from workaholics," agrees Siegler, who designs seminars and special conferences relating to human resources for the AMA.
"A workaholic," says Robert Rosen, a psychologist and consultant to the Washington Business Group on Health, "is somebody who works for the sake of being active rather than the results. Workaholics are driven to the activity and the process of work, being busy and being obsessed with work, having to be connected to work, rather than being productive or results-oriented.
"Some people are workaholics because they are inflexibly addicted to work," Rosen explains. "They need it in order to feel good about themselves. They don't feel terribly adequate. Work and their work identity are a primary way of giving themselves strokes, to bolster their shaky self-esteem.
"Another group of workaholics," Rosen says, "are generally angry. They work very hard to let off aggressive energy and steam. That's good in a competitive business environment, but some become overwhelmed by that. There's a threshold where it's no longer good.
"Another kind of workaholic works to avoid being close -- being intimate. Work is their way of being connected to something but not being intimate."
Finally, Rosen says, "Some people are workaholics because they are obsessed with order and control and therefore they can't get through the forest for the trees. They spin their wheels because they're overwhelmed."
It's a pretty negative picture Rosen paints of those coworkers who'll be going into the office on a holiday -- the ones who say, "I'm just going in for a few hours to clear off my desk."
But workaholics have a positive counterpart in the work place. Rosen calls them peak performers. "A peak performer," he says, "is someone who works hard and is really being the best that he can be. They're very results-oriented. They're productive in the traditional sense of the word."
And productivity is the key, according to Rosen: "Ultimately workaholics are generally less productive than peak performers."
The trouble is that in most of today's information-based work places, there's no way to measure productivity. That leaves workaholics free to work long hours, make everyone else look lazy or unmotivated, and yet not accomplish any more than the peak performer who comes in on time and doesn't work late every night.
"Workaholics annoy me," says one young executive who considers himself a peak performer. He agreed to talk about the workaholics in his office but asked not to be identified. "I don't want to sound like I'm putting down my colleagues," he says.
But, he says, contemptuously, "They come in early, lock themselves in their offices, and leave late. Everyone thinks they're working hard, but who knows what they do? Meanwhile, I have the same job as they do and I have no difficulty doing it in eight or nine hours a day.
"Some nights I feel I have to stay late, just to look like I'm not goofing off."
His boss, he says, also a workaholic, has hired underlings who are very much like him. Though he's not sure why he was hired, he says it doesn't matter -- he's looking for a new job.
"Most workaholics," says Rosen, "are Type A's, exaggerated, and Type A's are at risk of heart disease. Many of the workaholic tendencies produce burnout, lethargy, fatigue, periodic stress symptoms, and interfere with the quality of work. A clear mind and a clear body, a healthy body, is really critical for the productive worker."
So, says psychologist Marilyn Machlowitz, who has her own management consulting firm in New York and wrote a book Workaholics: Living With Them, Working With Them, the challenge now is not how to work harder, but to work smarter. That becomes particularly important as numerous companies, as a result of mergers and reorganizations, streamline, leaving fewer people to do more work.
"I think the issue of working harder is on people's minds in the wake of cutbacks," Machlowitz says. "The people who survive have more work to do."
Nevertheless, she is suspect of time management proponents who pitch ways to get more done in less time. "The efficient way of working is not always the most effective way of working," she says.
Machlowitz says that workaholism will remain a desired trait in some employers' eyes, but says that other trends, including the aging of the work force and the advent of the baby bust generation, where fewer new college graduates will be competing for more jobs, will work against it.
The badge of workaholism? "In a certain segment of the population it burns more brightly," she says. "Another segment has taken it off and thrown it away."