Jessica Peterson—Getty Images/Tetra images RF
By Marty Nemko
December 29, 2014
IDEAS
Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from UC Berkeley and is a career and personal coach.

I’ve been saddened, okay angered, by the change in how we treat our hard workers.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, people who worked long hours were considered the norm. Not only did my father work 12 hours a day, seven days a week to support my mom, sister, and me, all of our friends’ fathers did too. And most of them, including my dad, were Holocaust survivors who were wrested from their homes by the Nazis before they even finished high school and then thrown into concentration camps. My father and his friends, lucky survivors, after the war, were dumped in the Bronx with no English, no money, and no family. So they all had just low-level jobs or tiny businesses, while they lived with the Holocaust’s scars. If any judgment was rendered about those hard workers, it was praise.

Beyond the fathers I knew personally, I recall hearing admiration for accomplished people, whom I recall as being defined not just by their intelligence but by their relentless work ethic. For example, Jonas Salk worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week until he came up with a cure for the disease that terrified all parents—polio. Kids with polio were doomed to a brief life, all spent on crutches if not in an “iron lung.” Salk developed a vaccine that has virtually eradicated polio.

Yet today, a person who works long hours is likely to be pathologized as a “workaholic,” like an alcoholic, addicted. In fact, most successful people I know do work long hours and not because they’re addicted to work but because they make a conscious choice that the working week’s 40 to 60+ hours are more wisely spent being productive—for example, making, selling, or providing goods and services for people—than on recreation or even the vaunted family time. Indeed, research does support that quality time, not quantity time, is key. Consider, for example, this review of the literature, which concludes that children are not hurt by mothers who work outside the home. But that doesn’t stop the criticism: “She’s a negligent mom.” “He’s out of balance.” “She’s a workaholic.”

But what about the consensus opinion that long hours makes you less productive? I can counter that only by reporting that I’ve been career coach to hundreds of highly successful and productive people as well as to many strugglers, and one of the key differentiators is that the successful group works far longer work weeks than work-life-balance advocates would recommend. And nearly all those hard workers insist they work only as long as they can do so without sacrificing quality—and for them (and me,) that’s well beyond a 40-hour work week. And their long hours don’t seem to affect their health, as long as their work style is not hurried or short-tempered.

Imagine that you work long work weeks and instead of being praised for your hard work, you are demonized, including by your spouse. How would you feel? Would that denigration be deserved?

Of course, not everyone has the capability or desire to be productive for a long work week, but shouldn’t we think twice before dubbing hard workers as out-of-balance, let alone pathologized as a workaholic? Often, the more accurate term is “heroic.”

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. specializing in education evaluation from U.C. Berkeley and subsequently taught there. He is the author of seven books and an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.

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