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"Faking" Workaholism Reveals a Deeper Workplace Problem

05/28/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

A recent article by New York Times writer Neil Irwin caught my attention: He describes the findings of a study from Boston University about what actually occurs within a workaholic culture. The study examined the work behavior of employees within one large consulting company that's known for a high-intensity, workaholic environment.

Irwin reports this interesting finding from the study: "Some of the people ostensibly turning in those 80- or 90-hour workweeks, particularly men, may just be faking it."

Although these findings were based on just that one company, they do raise the possibility that workers in other companies known to promote -- or require -- workaholic behavior may also be pretending to embrace the long hours regimen. They may well be working fewer hours, behind the scenes.

Based on my own work with career professionals in a variety of organizations, I think these findings are not only accurate about the actual behavior in other workaholic cultures, but they also cast light on a deeper, underlying problem: A theme within our career and organizational culture is that men and women are expected to adapt and embrace a view of "success" largely defined by steady, singular pursuit of position, power and financial reward. It's a pervasive view about what constitutes a successful career; a successful life, really.

And that often underlies and fuels the "need" for workaholic demands -- despite substantial evidence that the latter leads to diminished productivity, innovation and employee commitment. And, despite the pervasive stress among employees that underlies a wide range of illness -- emotional and physical. And despite surveys that show tremendous employee dislike, dissatisfaction and conflict with the culture and management of their organizations.

Irwin alludes to an aspect of this at the end of his article, writing, "Maybe it's that too many companies reward the wrong things, favoring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity." In fact, the study found that people who were "passing" as workaholics "...received performance reviews that were as strong as their hyper-ambitious colleagues...there was no real damage done by their lighter workloads."

Moreover, "...women, particularly those with young children, were much more likely to request greater flexibility through more formal means, such as returning from maternity leave with an explicitly reduced schedule. Men who requested a paternity leave seemed to be punished come review time, and so may have felt more need to take time to spend with their families through those unofficial methods."

I think these additional findings highlight the deeper, pervasive theme I raised above: Our cultural norm that equates a successful adult life with embracing a workaholic and psychologically unhealthy workplace culture is having a destructive impact to individuals. But it also harms the long-term viability of organizations in our fast-evolving era of rapid change - especially from the rise of younger generations and their view of work, life, and what they are seeking in both realms.

An example of the latter is in the findings of a survey of 10,000 workers by Ernst &n Young's Global Generations Research, described by Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post. "I really see that there's an empathy gap in the workplace," said Karyn Twaronite, EY global-diversity and inclusiveness officer. "When there's frustration about work-life balance in the workplace, and you think your boss doesn't get it, that very likely could be true. "

This may be why: The survey found that 80 percent of millennials surveyed are part of dual-income couples in which both work full time. But among their bosses, mostly baby boomers, just 47 percent have a full-time working spouse. Over 25 percent of have a spouse at home and is responsible for taking care of all home-front duties. Twaronite pointed out that younger workers see that technology frees them to work productively from anywhere, but older bosses who are more accustomed to more face time may be afraid that "...people who don't come to the office won't work as hard."

This and related cultural shifts among the younger generations, such as redefining "family" are continuing. They will affect all realms of the workplace, as men and women alter what success means to them and what they require from their companies. The question is whether older leaders are able to grasp and adapt to these changes; and recognize that they will impact how people are oriented to work and the kinds of workplaces they will seek.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.

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