Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash
Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash
The term workaholism was coined in 1971 by minister and psychologist Wayne Oates, who described workaholism as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly" (Oates, 1971)

I'll be honest, I struggled to get up this morning.

I could have stayed in bed at least until 6 am or 7 am.

Ooh, you Devil...!

In the end, I swung my legs over the bed at just after 5.30 am and, as they say, here I am.

I know that not everyone feels the need to get up so early but when I was fully on my work 'game' — say, when I was in my early 20s — work was my life and getting up at stupid-o'clock was my sine qua non. I vividly remember a let's-see-who-can-get-to-the-office-earliest game between me and the two other recruitment consultants who worked for me, all sparked off by a Tube strike and wanting to beat the rush hour traffic. If I recall, in the end, I didn't bother going home, and slept on the office floor, so that I was awake by 3.30 am ready to beat whoever came in first! 

Am I proud of this unholy alliance with workaholism? Not at all. In fact, I feel slightly embarrassed to even write about it. 

But my obsession went even further than early starts. I'd routinely work seven days a week, only easing back slightly at the weekends to enjoy a few hours walking around London for a little respite from the drudgery and pain of having to endure another eight to ten hours in the office. And my routine was so maniacal that, one year, I even worked right through Christmas. The only day I took off was Christmas day. I still remember a call I made on Boxing Day to a candidate which was answered by his wife who, rightly, refused to put on him on the phone. To this day, her words still haunt me: 

Julian, do you know what day it is? It's bloody Boxing Day; and, no, my husband is not coming on the phone! I can't believe you had the gall to call us today. Haven't you got something else you could do with your life?

I'd offer this in mitigation. For me, the work wasn't the thing that was driving me into an early grave but the need to keep the business — one that I'd started aged 19 — afloat. You see, by this stage, my erstwhile business partner, Bill, had or was going off the rails. In short, he'd lost his mojo and had retreated to a small cubicle-style office, leaving me to manage the team of eight people, deal with some angry and aggressive creditors but most of all to continue to generate between £20,000 to £30,000 per month in sales just to keep the business afloat. That meant I had to place anywhere between five to ten candidates per month. And that's a lot of work.

What is it they say? Hindsight is 20/20 vision. And looking back (not with any reverence), I now see how deeply, deeply obsessed I was with work to the detriment of everything else. 

Sadly, this obsession, as much as I can offer mitigating circumstances for my whirling dervish approach to my first business start-up and eventual collapse, runs very deep. In fact, it's shown up right across my life including my degree course, my early days as a newly qualified solicitor, and then trying to make partner, and all the time I invested trying to grow a consultancy business from 2010 to 2016. Quite honestly, and without being too melodramatic, it's a wonder I've didn't work myself to death.

Oh, you poor thing.

Don't worry, the last thing I'm looking for or even expect is sympathy. I'm the only person to blame for my idiocy. 

But I have, across all areas of my life, paid a high price for my non-questioning approach in allowing work to fill up my life. Perhaps that's why I write and speak with such fervour when I talk about my journey of self-inquiry and the need for others to do likewise (i.e. Who am I?). I see now, more than ever, that if, just once, I'd stopped running long enough to look up from the treadmill of my bone-weary soul, I might have realised that work's not that important — it's not, honest — but worse still it was robbing me of my life. And to be clear, I don't mean to replace one crappy job with a slightly less crappy job; I mean the 'importance-of-work' narrative that has made me a dull person in so many ways. 

What about you?

What's your relationship to work?

Anyhow, the point of this post — if there is one other than to tell you about another fine mess I've got myself into — is to again illustrate how the CV19 lockdown has brought me down to earth with more than just a gentle bump. It's shown me that this 'living life' thing that I keep banging on about, for me at least, is housed within a much slower pace of life, with very few things to do or focus on — e.g. writing, reading and walking — and it certainly doesn't involve leaning into and adopting another success credo such as 'Be All You Be'. In short, it's about dropping everything that doesn't bring me joy at the deepest, most profound level. 

I realise how blessed, how deeply blessed I was and have been to have this space but as I've said to a few people, it feels like I've been wearing a new pair of glasses shorn of the faux materialism (in the broadest sense) that's so filled up my life. Or put it another way, whereas previously I might have tacitly admitted that I lived to work, it's now very much the contra position. To be clear, I was never interested in titles or even the money but my competitive instinct was such that I felt the harder I worked the more success would come my way. No more. In fact, I can honestly say that apart from doing a good job in my paid work, pulling out all the career stops, showing up with a faux expression and playing by all or most of the unnecessary rules no longer interests me — not one little bit. 

Let me say that again. (Must you?) Work is not my thing. Yes, it's there to enable me and my family to enjoy a certain lifestyle — it's very ordinary, I promise you — but nothing else. Does that mean I'll start watching the clock and pull up the stumps on the day when I've done my hours? Possibly, but then again, my legal work doesn't really lend itself to a 9 to 5 existence, particularly given I work for a business that has an international presence, meaning that I've got to work across various time zones and regular GMT hours doesn't always work well.

As to the rest of the time, as I've said a few times on Livejournal and elsewhere, my lifeforce now is very important to me — I don't have many years left — and I intend to invest it in doing the things that truly, deeply matter to me including writing, poetry and being in service to my family.

One final thing. I wish we'd be more open if not about the term workaholism but about the effect on all of us who, like me, have put work above everything else or almost everything else. It's not that I want employers to take on an additional burden but if lockdown has shown us anything, it's the opportunity to change the narrative about the need to commute, to work long hours in an office and to show up all present and correct rather than focusing on the quality of the work. After all, work is still a deeply human thing and expecting or pressurising people to be machine-like is not and never should be the focus of any manager or leader's role. I could say more but hopefully you get my drift.

Of course, at the end of the day, this is simply my experience. You may have a very different relationship to work — a good one, I hope — but if there was an opportunity to continue this conversation in a wider space, I'd very much welcome that. Something to ponder.

Take care.

Blessings, Ju


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