To suggest that work might be a form of an obsessive compulsive disorder would sound like a bad joke by a stand up comedian, in the vein of the sort of humour expressed in the tee-shirt slogan that work is the curse of the drinking classes, yet being a workaholic seems a much more difficult habit to break than might be imagined.
A friend in Northern Ireland, a businessman who had lost everything through alcoholism and who had then had the support and the courage to rebuild his life, so that the latter life outshone the former, would speak publicly about the disease. For him, alcohol addiction was an obsessive compulsive disorder, he believed that his personality was thus inclined and that anything he did, he tended to do it obsessively. Talking about his business one day, he said on a typical day he would start at six in the morning and finish at ten at night, “it’s an obsession, but it’s a better obsession than drinking.” No-one would have disagreed with him, but is any compulsive behaviour healthy?
Working split shifts, with a morning shift that can run from seven until two, and an evening shift that can run from four until ten, there seems always an uneasiness in dealing with the two hours in between finishing and starting again. There is lunch to be had and odd things to which to attend, but there should be an hour to spare – an hour to talk, or to read, or to listen to music, or to do something relaxing, but instead there is a constant restlessness. It’s not that an hour is too short a time, an hour would be happily passed reading a book on a train journey, or in a coffee shop with friends, but the time seems a moment of agitation rather than calm.
To sit and do nothing when the clock is ticking down the minutes until the next shift seems a very difficult challenge. Correspondence is read, the bank balance is checked, and there is a feeling of a need to do something useful, something positive. A pile of shirts sat on the worktop in need of ironing, for the world’s slowest ironer, they were enough to fill the time available.
Perhaps the tendency to be constantly active derives from a childhood in a farming community where sitting doing nothing was considered unhealthy, perhaps it comes from years of being imbued with a Protestant work ethic, perhaps it is an obsessive compulsive disorder.