The workaholic syndrome

Long hours a mixed bag of stress, economic rewards

May 17, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,Special to

David Palasits is not in denial about being a workaholic.

A 45-year-old married father of three, Palasits readily admits to working 50 to 60 hours a week as manager of staff development and training for Catholic Relief Services Inc. in Baltimore.

"Yes," Palasits conceded. "I can't say that I'm always proud of it."

Along with the time he devotes to his job, the Columbia resident serves as president of the Parent-Teacher Student Association at Wilde Lake High School; coaches his 6-year-old son's soccer team; leads a Cub Scout troop with his wife, Rebecca; and reads at his church.

"There are weeks when things are out of balance, and I need a little more down time," Palasits said, adding that he doesn't think that his family is suffering too much because of his activities. "Sometimes, [they] will complain if I have too many meetings."

With the steady growth in worker productivity in recent months and the presence of fewer new jobs in an economy that is slowly recovering, the workaholic syndrome is alive and well in the nation's workplace, employment professionals and other experts say.

Employees are working more hours for the same, or less, amount of money -- and some fear that parents are imparting this pressurized work ethic to their children.

"It's the survival of the fittest -- who can work the longest, the hardest -- and for the least amount of money," said Dr. Jack Vaeth, a staff psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt Health System Inc. in Baltimore. "If your colleague is willing to work 50 hours per week, and you'll work 65 hours and be more productive, the company will obviously choose you."

Stephanie Borass, an economist with the U.S. Labor Department in Washington concurred, noting that Americans generally work an average of 39.2 hours a week.

"That sounds logical," Borass said, "but I don't have any data to support it."

To gauge the pulse of the region, make a cursory check of some of the area's top employers, inquiring about how their staffs ranked according to the national average. Few companies came forward. And of those whose representatives did return telephone calls seeking comment, virtually all declined.

Dr. Vaeth said he was not surprised.

Since Baltimore is a fast-paced city that competes with Washington, New York and Philadelphia, there are likely plenty of workaholics in the area.

"There's a need to keep up with the Joneses," he said. "We are living in a driven city, where medical people and political people are working at some of the [most competitive places in the nation]."

The productivity factor

According to the Labor Department, productivity at America's companies rose solidly in the first quarter, at a 3.5 percent annual rate, compared with a 2.5 percent pace in the previous three-month period.

The reading, released earlier in the month, was attributed primarily to gains in corporate efficiency -- marking the best showing since the third quarter of 2003 and matching analysts' forecasts.

This increased efficiency helps the economy to grow faster without igniting inflation, allowing companies to pay workers more without raising prices. Otherwise, such increases would eat at any wage gains. Productivity also can bolster a company's profitability.

And as profits improve, firms may be more willing to increase hiring and capital spending -- critical to sustaining growth.

A lasting recovery may be taking greater shape, however, as companies added 288,000 jobs in April -- the second month of robust hiring -- the Labor Department said this month. The broad-based hiring marked the eighth month of payroll gains and reversed nearly 2 1/2 years of job losses, dating to early 2001.

"Business has changed such that employees need to do more," Dr. Vaeth said. "Society has changed drastically."

But whether these changes will ease workaholism remains to be seen, he said.

"I don't think it will trickle down," Dr. Vaeth said. "Regardless, there are some people who want to work hard. That's a part of the old Protestant work ethic. Those people will not change."

However, for others hoping for somewhat of a breather, Dr. Vaeth added, "It could trickle down over a period of time. But management assignments are like taxes: Once they're initiated, they're not likely to be taken away."

Managerial and professional employees put in an average of 41.5 hours a week in 2002, the year for which most recent figures are available, said Borass of the Labor Department. That compared with 37.5 hours for technical and administrative workers and 34.6 hours for service employees, she said.

And, of course, there's always those people who generally have lower-wage jobs, working "80 hours a week to support three kids and a sick mother," Borass said.

The American way

Long workdays are "an American phenomenon," said Clyde Bradman Mathura, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and acting chairman of the Department of Applied Psychology and Rehabilitation Counseling at Coppin State University. "We work harder than other industrialized nations."

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