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Working to Live or Living to Work? : Your Job Can Define Your Life--or Drive You Crazy

December 19, 1987|DON COLBURN | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Working is "not merely a state of employment but a state of mind," writes psychiatrist Dr. Jay Rohrlich in his book "Work and Love: The Crucial Balance."

"Nothing else with which we associate ourselves can give us the sense of objective identity that work can," Rohrlich says. "When we can say, 'I did it,' we are enjoying the ultimate in self-definition."

Work, he says, "organizes, routinizes and structures our lives. It allows for the appropriate outlet of competitive strivings. It keeps us sane."

But sometimes, too, it drives us crazy. The modern dilemma, as sociologist Max Weber once said, is, "do we work to live or live to work?"

Looking for Meaning

"More than anything else," says Kevin Sweeney, chairman of the American Center for Quality of Work Life, "people are looking for meaning in their life. And work being a large portion of their lives, they're looking for meaning in their work. They're looking for something bigger than themselves.

"If they don't find that, they get very frustrated and burned out."

The importance of having an interesting job was ranked "high" or "very high" by 69% of Americans in a 1982 Gallup poll--far ahead of having many friends (54%), having a high income (37%) and having enough leisure time (36%).

"When someone asks you what you do," says David Oldfield, director of the Psychiatric Institute Foundation's Midway Center for Creative Imagination, "if you don't have something to say that sounds nice and worthy of admiration, it's embarrassing. It's those titles that mean so much to our self-esteem and our sense of who we are."

"A title, like clothes, may not make the man or woman," writes Studs Terkel in "Working," "but it helps in the world of peers--and certainly impresses strangers."

Monday through Friday, most Americans spend about half their waking hours in offices, factories, classrooms and stores--at a desk or on an assembly line, in a field or behind a wheel. In short, at work. The average workweek dropped from 69 hours in 1870 to 40 hours in 1940, but has stayed almost unchanged since.

Consumes Most People's Time

"Going to work and being on the job really consumes most of people's time," says Norman Feingold, a Washington clinical psychologist specializing in career development. "It dips in and spills over to the rest of their lives. It determines where you live and who you marry and your life style.

"In our society, your stature and recognition are determined by your work. When you drop out of the work force, you drop out of a great deal of the mainstream of America."

"We happen to be a work-oriented society," Oldfield says. "The American Dream is about work, overcoming obstacles and revolutionizing the world through technology and industry."

It wasn't always this way. The ancient Greeks thought work was fit only for slaves, a necessary evil that brutalized the mind. Early Christians saw work mainly as punishment for sin. Luther and Calvin helped establish the Protestant ethic of work as the path to salvation, and the Industrial Revolution reinforced the notion of labor as the source of economic value and progress.

The 20th-Century American work ethic, though it's under some stress itself, seems like the classic Cartesian credo with a twist: "I work, therefore I am."

Psychiatrist Rohrlich says many of the patients in his Wall Street practice--mainly lawyers, stockbrokers and investment bankers--seem involved with their work "to the virtual exclusion of all else." Not only is their work "single-minded," but their materials--mainly numbers--are less tangible than those of a shoemaker, an artist, an engineer, a salesperson or a doctor.

Paranoia Is Key to Achievement

"Where else but on Wall Street," asks Rohrlich, "can one hear, as I did from a famous and enormously successful corporate financier, that 'paranoia is the key to high achievement in this business'?"

Whether work is a labor of love or just another four-letter word, of course, economic necessity forces all but the super-rich to work for a living. And despite all the tribulations of work, not working can take an even bigger toll.

The "social pathology of unemployment" was described in a 1984 congressional Joint Economic Committee report, based on studies of the recession of 1974-75 by M. Harvey Brenner, professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Brenner found that the 14% rise in unemployment during that recession was associated with a 2.3% increase in the overall mortality rate and increases in the death rates from cardiovascular disease (2.8%) and cirrhosis (1.4%), which is usually a result of excessive alcohol consumption. Brenner also found a 6% rise in the admission rate to state mental hospitals, a 6% rise in total arrests, a 1.1% rise in reported assaults and a 1.7% rise in homicides.

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