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Is ‘workism’ making you miserable?

Poking around on The Atlantic website the other day, I ran across the article Workism is Making Americans Miserable. It drew me in for several reasons. First, as a woman of a certain age, I am constantly asked how long I plan to “keep going.” The implication, of course, is that, sooner or later, I should stop—even if I’m continuing to find great purpose and satisfaction in what I do. Second, over the years, I’ve worked with many (many!) clients who have suffered from ‘workism.’ Unlike ‘workaholics’ who are addicted to work, ‘workists’ worship work. They make it the center of everything they do. 

Why is this a problem? Because a job is something you can lose—often for reasons that have nothing to do with your skill, commitment, or desire to keep working. Even worse, if (or perhaps when) that happens, it’s not uncommon for workists to suddenly realize that after years of being 100% focused on working to build wealth, they have failed to live richly. At least so far.

Stuart is a perfect example. A bona fide company man, he had, in the words of the author of The Atlantic article, “made his desk his altar.” Then life happened. His company closed operations last April, and just a month later his wife Lydia was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly he was forced to see the world with an entirely new perspective. At 62, he decided it was time to focus on his marriage and his life outside the office. It wasn’t easy. 

When I met with Stuart and Lydia in June, they were unsettled. Lydia’s diagnosis seemed promising; the doctors were optimistic that surgery and chemo would be a “cure.” But neither of them had a clear vision of what their future looked like. I asked them to start by writing down a ‘bliss list’ of the things that would make them happiest. Did they want to travel? Visit their grandchildren? Write a novel? Learn to sail? It’s one of my favorite exercises with clients because it usually brings so much joy. But Stuart was far from joyful. “I don’t know how not to work,” he told me. “I thought work was my bliss. I’m not sure I know how to find a new way to be happy.”

It’s a fine balance. All our lives, we’re told to find work that we can be passionate about, and we buy into the idea that work should be our #1 priority. Our career becomes something that not only feeds our family and our bank accounts, but something that also serves as our religion, giving life meaning and providing the community that connects us. But is that really how we want to live our lives? How much happier could we be if we were able to temper our experience of work to be one of our raisons d'être—but not the only one?

Georgia spent her entire life striving for financial independence. Raised by a single mother, she was determined not to struggle financially as an adult. She played by all the rules and did everything “right.” She put herself through college, got a great job at a top consulting firm, and aggressively climbed the corporate ladder for nearly two decades. She thought she’d won the battle—until she was unexpectedly (and rather nastily) laid off due to a restructuring of the company. 

When we got on the phone a week later, she was still shell-shocked. “I don’t even know who I am anymore,” she told me. “I feel like I’ve been voted off the island, and I don’t even know why!” Colleagues she had worked with for years were no longer returning her calls, and the last time she’d hunted for a job was in the days before the internet. She felt like she had lost her purpose, her community, and, in many ways, her life. At just 52, she wasn’t ready to retire, but she was aware of the challenges of ageism in the workplace. (As I heard someone say the other day, “If you’re laid off over 50, you’re retired, and you just don’t know it yet!”)

It took some time, but Georgia slowly began to regroup, rethink, and rebuild. (She persisted!) Working with a skilled life coach, she saw that she had pursued her work at the exclusion of almost everything else in her life. She inventoried the skills she had developed during her career and began to redefine not only how she could earn a living, but also how she viewed her work and herself. Last year, she opened her own business—a venture that combines her experience in consulting and her enthusiasm for travel. She’s her own boss, and she’s found a new passion. Best of all, she has created a life that gives her time to find her bliss away from her desk. 

I consider myself one of the lucky few. While I may be a ‘workist’ at heart, my job is just one of my many passions, and I see what I do as a gift. Helping my clients pave a path to financial security and independence gives me so much satisfaction and joy that I feel blessed every minute I get to do this thing called “work.” If that’s not where you are at the moment, I urge you to take the time and effort to seek that fine balance between doing work you love and living a truly rich life—however you define it.