Working From Beach? Yes, you have a problem © FT montage/Unsplash

Hello and welcome to Working It.

Well, we got through International Women’s Day last week (whether you were pro the purple logos and slick marketing — or very much anti All That). I still think it serves a useful purpose but, overall, the feeling this year among many commentators seems to have been one of exhaustion 😴.

I am not sure where the next burst of enthusiasm for change in workplaces is going to come from, or what its focus will be — but I really hope it arrives soon. And do tell me what’s happening — what’s firing people up where you work 🚀? Because we need a reset. Has DEI, in its current form, lost its way? Email me about that topic— or anything else:

Read on for why switching off from work may be a lifesaver and in Office Therapy we advise a new starter who is already eyeing the exit ➡️.

Why workaholism is a serious issue

Are you working far too hard? Probably. It’s practically a condition of “knowledge work” (or “greedy work”, as the Nobel-winning economist Claudia Goldin calls it). More than half of American workers describe themselves as “workaholics”. But beyond the usual exhaustion, stress and sleeplessness — do you actually have a much deeper problem? Do you work endlessly and excessively? Is work the foundation of your identity and the source of the validation you crave?

If you recognise yourself in those questions, it’s worth exploring what part workaholism might be playing in your life. While hard data is sparse, it is a condition that’s on the rise. According to Malissa Clark, associate professor of industrial and organisational psychology at the University of Georgia, and director of its Healthy Work Lab, while work hours have decreased over the past century, we don’t feel any benefit from that because of technology and remote working.

Malissa told me that it was now more difficult for us to “psychologically disconnect from our work, even if we are not physically at work. So it probably feels to most of us that we are working more, because work is having an increasing effect on our day-to-day lives. For example, it’s easier than ever for our bosses to call us after hours ☎️.”

So modern working life creates a ripe environment for those who are prone to overwork. But beyond that, workaholism is an addiction (some label it as a compulsive behaviour rather than an addiction, but the grim outcomes are the same) that needs to be recognised and treated, just like any other substance or behavioural issue. Workaholics Anonymous, for example, offers a 12-step programme for recovery, and Malissa quotes many current and former members of the programme in her new book Never Not Working: Why the Always-On Culture is Bad for Business, and How to Fix It.

Here’s what Malissa — a former workaholic herself — has to say about how you can identify whether you are a very hard worker — or an actual workaholic: “Many individuals [members of WA] I spoke with for my book discussed this idea of work basically being their entire identity and when work was stripped away (several people fell too ill to work) they really struggled with finding any meaning in life, since their whole identity was wrapped up in their workaholism.”

How can managers, partners and friends spot workaholism in others? Malissa told me: “Are they ever able to disconnect from work, both behaviourally and psychologically? Do they tend to take on too much and prioritise work above other important things, including family, friends and their health?”

Managers and leaders can help over-workers by setting a good example, Malissa said. Set an example by disconnecting during your own time off, and not replying to emails. And in turn, encourage employees “to work smarter, not longer”. And everyone needs to set boundaries between their home and work lives.

For a compelling case study of workaholism, listen to the very successful playwright James Graham talking on Desert Island Discs on BBC radio last week. He went to Workaholics Anonymous after realising work had become the central focus of his life. He self-sabotaged relationships, got all his self-esteem from his professional success, and toiled round the clock.

As James told the programme’s host, Lauren Laverne, when he started to recover, he began to actually understand that “it is an illness, it is an addiction in no way different really from drink or drugs or sex or anything else. It is a pattern of behaviour that is slowly, sort of, killing you.”

Do you have experience of workaholism? How can managers stop encouraging a culture of over work? All ideas welcome:

This week on the Working It podcast

Are you a “supercommunicator”? Probably not, but you can learn to become one. That’s the idea behind Charles Duhigg’s research into listening better and learning to connect with anyone, whatever their outlook and beliefs: he has just written a book called Supercommunicators. I talk to Charles on this week’s podcast about the benefits of understanding each other better — at work and in the rest of our lives.

I am currently on a mission to try to listen to other people — and that came out of my experience of attending a leadership course at the UK arm of the Aspen Institute. It was there I met Ruth Girardet, a moderator and executive coach, who has world-class listening skills. Ruth talks to me about why leaders don’t listen enough — and when they need to stop listening and start acting.

Having an elevated conversation with Charles Duhigg, up on the FT roof

Office Therapy

The problem: I started a new job about three months ago. It’s fine but no more than that. I was excited to start here: more pay, bigger company, better clients. But I am in a big team, working mostly in a grey corporate office. I have more money — but feel flat. Should I accept I made a mistake and go back to the old job (I loved my colleagues), leave and take a chance on another new job, or just stick it out?

Isabel’s advice: A surprisingly high percentage of people leave a new job very quickly: almost 40 per cent of staff who have been with a company less than six months plan to leave within the next 12 months, according to a survey by Qualtrics. I’ve long observed that some staff come and go very quickly, especially in big organisations where the workplace culture has a “Marmite” effect on new hires 🥪.

There is a lot to be said for being decisive and accepting when we have made a mistake. We all know people who have successfully gone back to their old jobs. There is no stigma attached and, especially at a more junior level, which I’m guessing is your position, people will forget that you ever left. And you liked your colleagues: friendship and human connection are far more important at work than most people realise.

My counter-take is that any job takes a lot longer than three months to get used to (especially as you are feeling “meh” rather than outright hatred and misery). I’ve just read a very persuasive new book that might be useful for you: Look Again: The Power of Noticing What was Always There by Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein. Its thesis is that we get used to things and stop noticing them — “habituation”, as the authors call it — and, to use the example of a new job you don’t like, they say that “within a few months you will no longer notice many of the things that made you miserable on your first day”.

If you let habituation happen then you may return to your normal “baseline” level of happiness — once we adapt to change, the authors say, this is what usually happens. So if you are a fundamentally upbeat person about work (and other stuff) — chances are, you will return to that emotional spot 🤩.

Got a question, problem or dilemma for Office Therapy? Think you have better advice for our readers? Send it to me: We anonymise everything. Your boss, colleagues or underlings will never know.

Five top stories from the world of work

  1. The misery of the meeting motormouth: My colleague Pilita Clark says she has had a lot of feedback from readers about this lively column on meeting-hoggers, and how to derail them. It’s clearly a problem many workers share.

  2. Can a chief happiness officer improve workplace morale? Great headline on an interesting read from Oliver Balch on the booming world of engagement and wellness strategies and the people tasked with implementing them.

  3. Female business founders don’t need more roadblocks to funding: The UK government has ditched proposals to limit further who can invest in risky early stage businesses. It’s a relief for women “angel” investors, writes Anjli Raval.

  4. America’s most powerful union leaders have a message for capital: An in-depth round table discussion between the FT’s Rana Foroohar and four union leaders gives a glimpse into the future of trade unionism as union-backing Gen Z comes into the workplace.

  5. Why we are all hustling for the $6mn gig: A scalpel-sharp view from HTSI editor Jo Ellison of the current state of the “influencer economy” in music and fashion: Rihanna gets millions for playing a billionaire’s wedding and people lower down the chain are paid to attend dinners and parties.

One more thing . . . 

Anxiety (or “generalised anxiety disorder” — a term that was actually made up at a 1970s dinner party) is such a huge topic that it can be hard to get a grip on it, and in a New Yorker essay, Lauren Oyler conveys some of that confusion, as well as her personal experiences of living with a variety of symptoms. We are all anxious, to some degree. Is it very personal, Oyler asks, or a generalised effect of social media, precarity and other ills?

A word from the Working It community

I’ll return to last week’s newsletter about kind leadership — which generated some very interesting responses — but this week I wanted to highlight responses to a previous newsletter, about the precarious state of Gen Z’s mental health.

Some corporates are already addressing this shift in generational outlook and expectation — Rebecca Lawlor, at National Grid, emailed about the way it has updated its employee assistance programme.

“Our data tells us that 72 per cent of our calls for help to our Employee Assistance Programme from our younger colleagues are mental-health related, however, our EAP service is, in fact, used the most by 30 to 50-year-olds, not Gen Zs, highlighting the need for support with greater appeal to our Gen Z workers. Since 2022, we have enhanced our traditional EAP support offering by partnering with Thrive Mental Wellbeing app to offer timely digital support such as proactive outreach, online CBT and in-app therapy.”

On the subject of traditional EAPs, there’s a new “File on 4” BBC radio programme investigating their shortcomings — listen here. I’ll return to EAPs and how they need a massive overhaul in a future newsletter. Do email me with your thoughts:

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