Overwork can be a seemingly respectable way to avoid dealing with other difficult issues in your life

Working long hours is a great way to hide from life’s problems. It can absorb so much of your time and energy that you never have any left to deal with aspects of your life that you’d like to forget about. From relationship problems to excessive drinking or financial woes, overwork is used by some people as a smokescreen to hide far worse issues.

Working too hard and putting in excessive hours is quite often often used to avoid facing other, more serious problems. After all, who is going to criticize you for being too diligent, or showing too great a commitment to your job? Besides, making your way up the corporate ladder can also offer some compensation—money, status, power— for the misery you are likely facing elsewhere.

Many, many people have aspects of their lives which are unsatisfactory or unpleasant, yet too difficult or scary for them to want to tackle. They need a diversion that works and is socially acceptable, and working too hard is nearly always the best.

Relationship problems are probably the most common type avoided in this way, if only because overwork will likely cause them if they weren’t there before. Not only can you make sure that long working hours keep you away from the other person as much as possible (periods traveling are good for this), you can honestly point to being so tired when you are together that it’s never the right time to tackle known personal issues. It’s a variant on the old excuse of not having sex because you have a headache.

Avoidance behavior

Here are just a few of the reasons why overworking is so often used to avoid dealing with other problems:

  • Working extremely long hours is widely seen as acceptable, especially in a society obsessed with competition and winning. Far from being criticized for doing so, to the detriment of other apsects of life, workaholics are given sympathy, or even praise.
  • It’s inexhaustible. There is always more to be done.
  • It usually gets you physically away from whatever the other problem might be.
  • It can absorb as much energy as you want to give it.
  • It provides benefits and rewards that may be seen as making up for the dissatisfactions and frustrations of the other parts of your life.
  • It can provide the illusion of a separate, far more enjoyable world, with its own relationships. Many people have almost a parallel existence at work, quite unlike they way they are outside it.

Armed with such a diversion, it’s perfectly possible to avoid dealing with unpleasant realities for many years. In the case of a sour relationship, if you wait long enough, and act distantly enough, the other person is very likely to give up and either accept prosperity in lieu of intimacy or walk out on you.

Sadly, deep-seated problems don’t go away so easily. In fact, the stress of all that excessive work will likely worsen problems, especially any that involve bad relationships, drinking, or drug use. Only getting out of debt can be helped by fat bonuses and rapid promotions. Even then, keeping up with other executives in terms of big houses, fast cars, and other toys—or buying off family problems with a super-rich lifestyle—might just land you in even worse financial problems.

Modern-day karma

Spending your time caught up in an illusion is a poor way to live, whatever the incidental material rewards you can get out of it. Inside, you know it’s an escape from reality. That makes it always fragile—and liable to collapse at any time.

There are also heavy costs: a constant level of dishonesty with yourself or others; the on-going anxiety to protect your carefully constructed world against the blows of reality trying to break in; the stress of dealing with those periods when you cannot avoid returning to the real world, with all its frustrations; and unexpected problems with maintaining your more-or-less-fictional successful existence.

As well as the strain associated with working so hard, this additional stress, coming from whatever issues you’re trying to blot out of your mind, may be just enough to push you over the edge into real burnout.

The Buddhist concept of karma is often misunderstood as some kind of cosmic retribution for past sins. I don’t see it that way. I think it points to the simple fact that every action has consequences. If you live a lie, based on erecting your working life into either an avoidance mechanism and a consolation, there will be consequences on both fronts.

Don’t depend on illusions. They are fragile and easily destroyed. Work isn’t, in most cases, sufficient to act as a proxy for the whole of life. The gaps inevitably show. Tackle your problems honestly and leave work out of it.

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