A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
August 18th, 2013 by William

The Karōshi Syndrome

Last week’s post tackled what I believe to be the most despised management practice in the workplace–micromanagement. I also noted that “workaholism” comes in a close second. Do you, or have your ever worked for, a “workaholic?” I know I’ve met many in my career–worked with them and for them. Have you ever given any thought as to what motivates these folks–why they’re the way they are? More importantly what are the effects these “dedicated” people have the rest of the organization. Do they provide motivation for all or do they really just contribute to why organizations tend toward dysfunctionality.

As a little background, the term “workaholic” is accredited to the American psychologist Wayne Oates who died in 1999. Oates coined the now-ubiquitous term in a 1971 essay, ”Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts about Work Addiction,” in which he confessed that he was addicted to what he called “industriousness.” He admitted it was a disorder akin to substance abuse. And, as you probably would agree from your own observation, workaholism is much more socially acceptable than drinking or drugs (although some may argue this last point?). However, most workaholics I’ve known also have had drinking problems. The irony is that it’s the kind of affliction which in many organizations will actually aid your career–help you to rise to the top of the pyramid.

In Japan they have a name for workaholism: Karōshi. Karōshi can be translated literally from Japanese as “death from overwork,” and is the phenomenon of occupational sudden death. We’ve long heard of the infamous “work ethic” the Japanese are known for, but apparently despite that their economy hasn’t done very well for the last decade plus. That’s the basic crux of workaholism–it has virtually no effect on the bottom line of an organization. It’s like a cancer for those caught up in its slow killing of the host. This I call “The Karōshi Syndrome.”

Dictionary.com defines a “workaholic” as: a person who works compulsively at the expense of other pursuits, or; a person obsessively addicted to work. These are the people at work when you get there in the morning and still there when you leave at night.

We’ve all come across workaholics. I’ve had bosses and colleagues praise themselves as being “workaholics,” and by that they are implying that they “work hard.” Most of these people were actually boasting of this addiction with pride. And since most organizations actually encourage and reward workaholic behavior it’s hard for it to die the ignominious death it deserves. From my own experience one thing to keep in mind is that “workaholism” is not the same as “working hard.”

Psychologist Bryan Robinson has called workaholism “the best-dressed mental health problem” of them all.

How many people are true workaholics? One recent estimate suggests that about 10% of adults in the U.S. might qualify as workaholic and as high as 23% amongst certain “expected” professions, i.e., doctors, lawyers and engineers. Which begs the question: do these professions require a workaholic personality or does the profession create a workaholic? It’s highly unlikely that the checkout clerk at Target is a workaholic.

So what exactly makes someone a true workaholic?

In his August 2013 LinkedIn article, “Is There Really Such a Thing as a ‘Workaholic’?” Jordan Weissmann tells us: “What, precisely, qualifies someone as a workaholic? There’s still no single accepted medical definition. But psychologists have tried to distinguish people merely devoted to their careers from the true addicts. A seminal 1992 paper on how to measure the condition argued that sufferers work not only compulsively but also with little enjoyment. Newer diagnostic tests attempt to single out those who, among other behaviors, binge and then suffer from withdrawal—just as someone would with, say, a gambling or cocaine habit. Even as the precise outlines of workaholism remain a bit fuzzy, various studies have tried to identify its physical and emotional effects. At the risk of carrying on like a Pfizer ad: research has associated it with sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.”

Several factors, or symptoms, help us to distinguish between a normal hard worker and the workaholic:

  • Workaholics believe that the long hours they endure and their “perceived” productivity is linear
  • Workaholics have a short-term time horizon–perfect for today’s business culture of short-term financial focus
  • Workaholics many times have limited success in leadership positions–servant leadership, empowerment and empathy are almost mutually exclusive to workaholism
  • Workaholics tend toward micromanaging their subordinates–setting impossibly high standards and making their lives miserable
  • Workaholics also tend to be highly critical of the work of their co-workers–will practice the gamesmanship of “throwing people under the bus”
  • Workaholics believe they are “working hard” but seldom have monumental, game changing, accomplishments (yes we’ve all read about someone who’s done great things–Steve jobs for example–but workaholism does not imply “creativity”)
  • Workaholics have a strong need to control other people and situations
  • Workaholics find it difficult to delegate responsibilities
  • Workaholics have difficulty working as part of a team
  • Workaholics will often perform tasks that aren’t required–they create “busy work.” They focus on being “busy,” instead of focusing on being “effective”
  • Workaholics tend to be pyromaniacs–setting organizational “fires” and creating the “student body left’ syndrome–they like the commotion it creates because it gives the appearance of “working hard”
  • Workaholics in management positions tend to expect the same perverted “dedication” from all who work for them

It’s this last point that I want to focus on because it’s really the most despicable trait of these ‘bullies.” Yes they are bullies in a way–I make this case in my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw. However, most workaholics never see the light and admit that they are bullies. And even when confronted with it they are unlikely to do anything about it–like change their behavior. Working long hours is the only way they know and expect everyone else to share that false dedication.

According to New York psychologist Dr. Marilyn Machlowitz, author of “Workaholics,” there are six basic characteristics that she found to apply to the workaholics she interviewed:

  • They are intense, energetic, competitive and driven. They compete fiercely with others. They define themselves in terms of their work
  • They have strong self-doubts and use hard work as a means of concealing or compensating for their perceived shortcomings. For some, their work is the only thing they are good at
  • They prefer labor to leisure. They get depressed and anxious on weekends and holidays and look forward to Monday morning the way others look forward to Friday afternoon
  • They can and do work anywhere and anytime–weekends, holidays, trips and time at home are no impediment to work. They often make their homes into extensions of their offices. Many are afraid to take a break lest they lose control
  • They [believe] to make the most of their time. They operate from daily-activity lists and plan their lives weeks or months in advance

From the above it’s not hard to understand why the workaholism can be a subtle form of bullying. Sounds like a typical sociopath to me. The big problem that arises is when the Karōshi syndrome sets in and the above behaviors transcend the workaholic individual and are expected of all in the organization. That’s when it becomes more than a harmless trait and it becomes destructive to the organization.

As I said earlier, the fact that many organizations celebrate this behavior is a key component of many a workplace’s dysfunctionality–workaholism and bullying become institutionalized. A workaholic based workplace culture is cluttered with non-productive activities like meetings, internal memos, gamesmanship between employees and non-productive institutions like fiefdoms. Most employees in this type workplace believe they are made to feel inferior because they don’t work long hours. The whole organization then suffers from bad moral and organizational turnover is high.

In a workaholic workplace, employees see that the organizational priorities are misaligned and that the vision and values, so widely preached, are worthless. And the worse part of all: the efficient and effective employee–the ones that can get their routine job duties and tasks done in a timely manner become self-conscious and guilt ridden.

So think twice before relinquishing to a workaholic boss and thus accepting all his/her associated maladies by proxy–stuck being something without really actually being it.

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