CoolTimeLife Podcast: Workaholism, Presenteeism, and Economics 101

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Workaholism, Presenteeism and Economics 101. Are you a workaholic? Do you want to be? Workaholism is not the same thing as being driven or dedicated, and it’s certainly not the same as being efficient and productive. It springs from a dark well of anger, and is an addiction, plain and simple. This episode of CoolTimeLife looks at the triple threat to productivity: workaholism, presenteeism, and the law of diminishing returns, and how becoming aware of these pitfalls will make you more successful in work and life.

Do you know the difference between effective work and Workaholism? Let me ask you this. If you received an email from a client, a customer or a work colleague at 10:30 at night, would you respond to it?

Many people would say yes. We have been conditioned to expect emails at any time of day or night and a many of us crave them.

But hold on for a second. Before succumbing to this temptation, before enjoying the sweet feeling of moving this email into the “done” category, take a moment to think what the person at the other end might be thinking.

Unless this reply is a real life-saver – like they are stuck on a project and desperately need a reply from you in order to get finished – unless it is something like that, then the email is just another message. BUT – by answering it as and when you do, you are sending another message at the same time. That your time does not have great value. You are willing to give it away to anyone, no questions asked.

OR, you are telling the sender your time and life are so disorganized that you are still working at 10:30 at night.

Now keep in mind I am using the idea of 10:30 at night in the context of someone whose workday is supposed to be over by 5:00 or 6:00. If you work a job that has evening hours, simply roll this analogy around the clock face to another time of day. What I am really saying here is, you are replying to emails on your personal time, not business time.

Now think – what does that tell your client or colleague. It might not be as impressive as you would like it to be.

I for one do not want to know that my accountant is working late into the night, especially if it is my file that he or she might be working on. I pay this person good money to do good, accurate work, and I do not believe that can be done at 10:30 at night.

Therefore, your attempt to demonstrate great customer service and agility by replying outside of work hours might actually backfire, painting you as a workaholic or simply overloaded and disorganized, neither of which does wonders for your reputation.

It is so easy to get caught up in your own work and forget how a customer or colleague perceives it. That’s why I am such a proponent on taking breaks and taking time to think. It’s not that I am against hard work, in fact I am very much for it. But hard work without sharp purpose is a waste of energy and reputation.

A customer needs to believe in you. Needs to know you value your own time and reputation. It becomes too easy to erode these things through sheer blind busyness.

Workaholism is an Addiction to Work, not Results.

The same goes for workaholism, which is a bad thing.

There’s a definite distinction between “working hard,” “working overtime,” and workaholism. Working hard is the diligent application of energies and talents into tasks that have been properly identified, prioritized, and scheduled, with minimal distraction or disruption. This allows for maximized productivity without upsetting a healthy work/life balance.

Working overtime means putting in a few more hours than you should once in a while. There are occasions when working overtime has its rewards: meeting a deadline on a “crunch” project, or making some extra cash for the holidays, for example. The key issue remains that overtime should be the exception rather than the norm.

Workaholism, though, isn’t about hard work, it’s about work addiction – compulsive overwork – busywork. Whereas hard workers do what is needed to get a job done, once it’s done, they relax and allow time for family, friends, and reflection. They work long hours on a short-term basis with clear goals. But with workaholics, there’s a preoccupation with work – an inability to turn it off. Most workaholics are not aware that they’ve crossed the boundary into inefficiency. Instead, they simply see themselves as relentless producers, focused on a distant goal that just needs a few more hours of work to complete.

The conditions that make workaholism possible are quite easy to see. The modern work ethic says, “you are what you do.” Portable computers, phones and Internet access make working from anywhere, around the clock, easier than ever, and taps directly into that sense of urgency.

There is also a fear factor: fear of not appearing to be a team player; fear of being left out of the loop; fear of taking a vacation in case you get replaced; fear of being part of the next round of downsizing. A combination of personal, technological, and social pressures conspires to create fertile ground for workaholism to flourish.

What are the signs of a workaholic? For a start, workaholics tend to work long hours, consistently staying late, and coming in on weekends and holidays (or working from home on weekends and holidays), even if they do not have any pressing deadlines. They think about work constantly, even when they are not at work. As Dr. Bryan Robinson states, the workaholic “uses work to fulfill an inner need.”  They rarely have hobbies, except those that are work-related, such as golf with colleagues. And they tend to neglect personal relationships, especially with spouses and children.

Nor are workaholics great team players, since they have trouble delegating. They enjoy taking care of a task themselves, living out a chronic case of the Superhero Syndrome.

In general, workaholics display actions and priorities inconsistent with true productivity. Workaholism is an addiction to work for work’s sake. There is a tendency to gravitate towards time-consuming tasks and to work the longest hours on the least productive or least practical tasks, since workaholism is an addiction to work, not results. Workaholics tend to focus on tasks that are immediately visible, rather than establishing priorities and then focusing on the top-ranked task.

The costs of workaholism: Having a workaholic on staff should be a source of immediate concern. Though they may appear as an archetype of busy-ness, a role model for the rest of the team, in actual fact the opposite is true. A workaholic environment creates stress, burnout and low morale among all staff, since they demand excessive work from subordinates, which bounces back in the form of sick leave and stress-related absences.

Similarly, the adrenaline that fuels much of a workaholic’s activity was never meant to be used that way. Adrenaline is a compound intended for fast escape – the fight-or-flight reflex. It’s acidic, literally. It’s an acid. Over time, it destroys body cells and blood vessels.

If you think you might be a workaholic, the best thing to do is to aim for the win-win. The pleasure you derive from working hard is an asset. But it’s essential to make sure that the efforts you undertake are correctly directed, and that balance is maintained.

Ask yourself:

  • Is the work I’m doing truly top priority, or do I just need to feel busy?
  • Can this work be delegated to someone?
  • Who will see the payoff of this work? Does it contribute to a key project?
  • What am I sacrificing? Family? Health? Exercise?
  • How are my habits affecting my staff? Are they getting frustrated trying to keep up? Is there high turnover?
  • How uptight would I get if I went home with all of this stuff still left to do?

Workaholism is a personality-based addiction, encouraged through the pressures and demands of business. It is not a substance addiction, but the withdrawal symptoms might be similar: intense discomfort, frustration, and stress. If you identify yourself as a workaholic, you will need to admit that fact first, and then seek a pattern of change that you can handle. This primarily consists of a tangible project plan and a written collection of “balance” items such as family, friends and hobbies, and a timeline for change.

It is also a condition that is not always taken seriously, in the context of the modern global work ethic. At least not until the paramedics have to be called.

The bottom line: Workaholism is not productivity, it’s addiction to the sensation of work.


A similar concept that reflects many of the problems of a high-pressure no-time workplace can be seen in the condition called “presenteeism.” Identified by Manchester University professor Gary Cooper, it refers to a marked reduction in productivity due to stress, injury, or information overload, but in contrast to absenteeism where an employee stays home, presenteeism sees the employee coming to work while sick, because of a heightened fear of losing their job, or simply as a “perverse expression of commitment.”

Obviously, such a condition highlights the schism between what the body needs and what the work schedule demands. It is an impediment to clear thought, productivity, and communication. Yet people still come to work, and occupy space.

Presenteeism is about being physically present but mentally absent at work due to stress & overwork.

Such situations send strong signals (or at least they should) that time and rest are the essential ingredients of productivity. Your body is a strict creditor. It takes back what it needs, regardless.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Economics 101 describes the Law of Diminishing Returns as a point at which any more resources added to a process actually results in lowered production. In other words, there’s only so much energy, money or material you can throw at a problem before it becomes wasteful.

I see this all the time with people at work: Here are just four examples:

  • Perfectionism: in an attempt to balance out the loss of control people feel due to overwork and due to an unmanageable influx of messages and expectations, many people become rampant perfectionists, unable to determine when a task is complete enough or good enough. Time is wasted as they add more to an already appropriate product. It is far more effective to seek excellence, rather than perfection. Excellence comes from planning, preparing, producing, reviewing, and revising, ideally over a time period that includes breaking away from the task and returning to it, refreshed, later.
  • Delegation: people refuse to delegate out of fear (there’s that fear word again) of the task being done to a lower standard by someone less experienced. Although it is correct to recognize that no-one can do your task to the level of expertise that you have attained, it becomes wasted effort when someone exists who could be doing the work, is not allowed to do so. Delegation is an act of education; a multi-step process in which the student takes more of the responsibility for a task with each passing iteration. Delegation takes time, and the willingness to budget one’s own time to come in and finish off, but that finishing-off time becomes shorter and shorter. Without delegation you are stuck doing a task that prevents you from doing a better more lucrative or satisfying one.
  • Email/messaging: the false urgency of email forces people to create thousands of unnecessary emails per year. This energy and time could be better used in either live conversation or in simply reducing the number of emails sent and accepted.
  • Workaholism: this is an addiction, just as alcoholism is. Workaholism is the addiction to busyness, which is not the same as productivity. It’s the need to feel busy, to do things, but not necessarily the right things. Extreme workaholics work until midnight or beyond. They stay late at the office or work from their home office or sofa. They send texts and emails at 1:00 a.m. and expect replies. They work from a wellspring of anger, not of true productivity.

In all of these cases, energy is being poured into activities without yielding satisfactory return. Energy must be conserved. Hunting animals know this. Energy is used in sprint mode, but doesn’t last long, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. The cheetah may be the world’s fastest land animal, but only for short periods at a time. It must choose to expend its energies and abilities wisely.

People who are able to step back and observe their activities in their kaizen-end-of-day moment are better able to see this. They are self-empowered to assign their resources to their best time of day and to decline or delegate those activities that do not yield excellence.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Workaholism, Presenteeism and Economics 101. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at

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