In 1968 a Baptist clergyman in Louisville, Kentucky brought into existence a new word, and along with it a multitude of ambiguities as well as a library of self-help books and a million or so magazine articles. Rev. Wayne E. Oates (1917-1999) was a busy minister and writer -- so busy, in fact, that his five-year-old son once asked for an appointment to see him.
Oates took that as a sign of something amiss in his life.
He decided his condition ran parallel to alcoholism and wrote an article, "On being a 'workaholic,'" for Pastoral Psychology magazine. Three years later the article expanded into a book, Confessions of a Workaholic.
He may or may not have corrected the imbalance in his life; at his death he was the author of more than 50 books, in itself highly suspicious in the eyes of the workaholism police. But certainly he earned a place in psychology and in the English language. The concept and word he launched have ever since been sailing the seas of human consciousness, causing confusion at every port.
The parallel with alcoholism has been taken so literally that an international organization, Workaholics Anonymous, has a 12-step program and AA-style meetings ("Hi. I'm Charles and I'm addicted to work"), where people confesss their addiction to cell phones, their perfectionism, their desperation, their multiple jobs.
Unfortunately, "workaholic" lacks a widely accepted definition, so it's applied glibly to the healthy and the unhealthy, both those who work long hours because they love what they do and those who are chained to their desks by an unappeasable compulsion. The neologism Oates coined 35 years ago has become encrusted with layers of misunderstanding, and maybe even a little malice directed at those who are offensively successful.
This week brings a new edition of Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts (Key Porter Books), by Barbara Killinger, a clinical psychologist in Toronto. It appeared originally in 1991 and has since gone into many foreign editions. Killinger says workaholics resist being labelled as such: "We all think we know someone who is a workaholic, but few of us are willing to acknowledge our own addiction."
Actually, that's not true. In 1998, when Statistics Canada interviewed 11,000 Canadians for its General Social Survey, about 27 per cent identified themselves as workaholics, roughly the same percentage as in the United States. StatsCan extrapolates that result to mean that 6.6-million Canadians consider themselves workaholics. They are spread evenly across age groups and split equally between men and women; they are more likely than not to be making above-average salaries.
Those people didn't say, and weren't asked, what they meant when they used the word. Barbara Killinger knows what she means. People afflicted with "this insidious addiction" are "emotionally crippled" and suffer from "obsessive-compulsive behaviours, perfectionist idealism, and ego-centered narcissism." They are "addicted to control and power in a compulsive drive to gain approval and success." They sound like an unattractive lot, and it's not surprising that their families are often destroyed.
Killinger offers many suggestions to help workaholics kick the habit but finds it hard to describe what a recovering workaholic can look forward to; in fact, she seems to have only a vague idea of life among the non-addicted. She seems obsessed with "balance," as if it were the most vital human achievement. Depicting normal work, she veers into fantasy. She says non-workaholics may enjoy their work and become passionately devoted to it, and then adds: "Most of the time, these workers can maintain balance in their lives and are fully in charge of their work schedules." Are there really many people fully in charge of their work schedules? That's not how life usually goes. Not long ago Charles McGrath, editor of the New York Times book section, demonstrated the extent to which "workaholic" has run wild through the language. He wrote that Samuel Pepys, of all people, "was, even in today's terms, a workaholic." Well, Pepys was certainly a busy fellow. Born to a laundress and a low-level tailor, he pulled himself up to the top of the civil service and became the chief organizer of the Royal Navy. But he was never narrow or single-minded. He entertained at lavish dinner parties and had, to put it mildly, an exuberant sex life. (The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a definition: "The workaholic ... neglects his family, withdraws from social life, and loses interest in sex.") Pepys threw himself into Restoration politics, even travelling on the boat that brought Charles II back to England. He enjoyed his hobbies; when he took up dancing he went so far as to hire a private tutor. And he wrote, in code and apparently just for himself, history's greatest diary, an account of 17th-century life that runs six volumes in the unabridged edition.
Using a word that implies pathology about the life of Samuel Pepys suggests a perverse view of achievement. The word has become uncoupled from the meaning Oates intended and Killinger still uses. Like many terms describing the way we live, "workaholic" is clouded by careless use, a commonplace word that everyone knows and hardly anyone understands.