A look at Washington's workaholics and the trade-offs they make in putting their jobs above everything else in their lives.
Out the door at dawn and maybe home in time for Leno, Washington workaholics are the high-octane fuel that keeps Power Town humming. Becoming one is easy. Getting a life is not.
Making matters more difficult: The insane hours, perfectionism, and control freakishness of Washington's work-obsessed are widely considered normal behavior in a city convinced that the Reflecting Pool laps at the epicenter of the universe.
"I don't think I'm all that unique in Washington," said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who until recently was editor for continuous news at The Washington Post. The title was apt. In addition to 12-hour workdays running the paper's online division, he was tethered to the office by BlackBerry and laptop computer 168 hours a week, 365 days a year. "I like to keep tabs on things. I relax more when I'm in touch," he said.
In mid-December, Chandrasekaran took a special one-year assignment leading The Post's coverage of America's Iraq policy. "I'll probably be just as busy, if not busier," he said.
Chandrasekaran's impressive drive and hyperavailability at foreign-bureau postings in Asia, Cairo, and finally Baghdad earned him the notice of The Post's top brass, which promoted him last year to become the first Asian-American assistant managing editor in the paper's history. In his voluminous spare time, he also authored a book about his Baghdad experience--Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone.
So what does he do for fun? "Other than reading nonfiction and watching HBO, it's not like I have oodles of other hobbies," Chandrasekaran said. Significant other? His girlfriend is an editor at Fortune magazine in New York City who matches his crazy hours, minute for minute.
"A long-distance relationship is often good for a workaholic," Chandrasekaran explained. "I can wake up early and work late five days a week, and we have the weekend to catch up on things." So far, his ongoing obsession with his day job hasn't cooled their mutual ardor. "Type A's attract," he said happily.
Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, ascribes to that theory and recently wedded his hard-charging sweetheart, Kim Molstre, who regularly logs 14-hour days flacking for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "She's more Type A than I am," said Singer. "I mean that in a loving, respectful way."
Singer often spends 15 hours a day on the job and runs marathons in his off-hours. The driven couple isn't planning a family now but probably will have children at some point, he said.
Having kids isn't on the agenda for Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. The Harvard-educated lawyer churns through 12-to-16-hour days fighting what she sees as the negative effects of globalization --outsourcing and unfair free-trade agreements. Wallach also sits on the board of several other grassroots organizations.
"When I'm around, it can be a pretty 24-hour thing," said Wallach, who is divorced but is currently seeing someone. "I do find the time [for a relationship]. But it's a matter of having a partner who understands or is the same way. It's not taken as a personal insult when a congressman calls late at night."
A common thread among self-admitted workaholics is an intense passion for--and enjoyment of--their jobs. "Sometimes I scratch my head realizing I actually get paid to do what I do," Wallach said. "My work is about trying to achieve values and goals that are a core part of who I am."
Of course, all that over-achieving comes at a cost, particularly to the spouses and children of the work-obsessed. Debra, not the real name of the wife of a top Washington PR executive, is ambivalent about her husband's work habits and their effect on their two young children. He earns a monster paycheck but is often missing in action during the workweek because of travel and other professional obligations.
"I think people get caught up in the loop, and there are legitimate times they need to stay late" at work, Debra said. Still, the situation is less than ideal: "I'm a single mom Monday through Friday. I approach it that way."
But would she trade more family time with her husband for less income? "I would rather have him home--depending on how much less money that would mean," said Debra, after pausing to think. "It would be nice to have him home for dinner and bedtime battles."
Workaholic widows are legion in Washington. "I have a passion for what I do," said Arnie Wellman, public-affairs chief for United Parcel Service, who returned a call at 12 a.m. local time in Poland (where he was on business) to be interviewed for this story. "Some people might say [I'm] a little too intense. My wife would have five or six different ways to describe it."
So would kids. John Dickerson and his four siblings grew up de facto orphans as their mother pursued a career as a Washington reporter in the fledgling TV news industry of the early 1960s. He provides a son's perspective on workaholism in a new book, On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News' First Woman Star.
While his mother labored copious hours to prove herself in the male-dominated TV-news business, Dickerson's father was equally absent working real estate deals. "We were just on our own. There were people there to take care of us, but we were independent operators," Dickerson said. "Any time [my mother] tried to assert her parental prerogatives, we thought it was an intrusion."
Relations with his mother grew frostier when Dickerson became a teen; only decades later--after he had become a workaholic White House correspondent for Time magazine--did the obvious occur with a thunderclap. "I kind of understand what drove her," he said. "She tried like the devil to get it right, but there was no playbook."
Message received. Dickerson quit Time and joined the mellower, family-friendly Slate magazine in September 2006 as chief political correspondent. There he can control his schedule and spend more time with his two young children, Brice and Nancy.
"I learned what kids need from their parents," he said. "Mom was trying to do an impossible thing--break through in the male-[dominated TV] world and raise five kids. She was too competitive to relinquish either one of them."
Few workaholics enjoy such velvet epiphanies. More often, years of living at the office lead to an inevitable personal crisis. "Your third wife says, 'I'm divorcing you,' " said Carole Thompson, a workaholism and addiction therapist based in Worcester, Mass.
Thompson approaches her workaholic clients much the same as she does those suffering from substance abuse. "The workaholic's brain chemical system is dumping all the time," she said. "They're on edge from adrenaline and noreprenephrine, and [their bodies] come to depend on the feeling."
With such socially acceptable and conveniently produced free drugs available, home and family obligations invariably drop down the priority list. "These people live in tomorrow--they are wonderful justifiers," Thompson said.
Several Washington-based psychotherapists echoed that assessment. Like workaholics the world over, the local breed of overachievers tends to suffer from a strong fear of failure and feelings of inadequacy that drive an all-consuming perfectionism and a need for control.
Washington psychotherapist Robin Truitt sees plenty of them in his practice, which focuses primarily on couples. What starts out as a healthy interest early in a career can insidiously morph into an obsession that tends to leave one partner behind. "They believe what they do is who they are," he said. Workaholism can also be an avoidance behavior masking a myriad of deeper personal and family problems. "It's a signal that other facets of their life aren't going well," Truitt said.
The solution is for the workaholic to address the underlying fears and anxieties, advised psychotherapist Brad Brenner. "As their sense of self-confidence grows, work isn't as important and they don't go after it with such single-mindedness."
And then, lo and behold: "The less they care about it, the better they do [at work] and the more fun they have," Brenner said.
- Barrett, Randy; Washington workaholics; National Journal; Jan 2007; Vol. 39; Issue 2.
Reflection Exercise #10
The preceding section contained information
about workaholics in Washington. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
According to Thompson, what "free drugs" produced in the workaholic cause home and family obligations to invariably drop down the priority list? Record the letter of the correct answer