PhiMarr 03-3-33



Why We Live to Work and What We Can Do About It


Ilene Philipson

The Free Press, 2002, 248 pp.  


ISBN 0-7432-1578-8

“Marriage implies intense emotional commitment, fidelity, exclusivity, security, reciprocity, personal identity, social acceptance, and access to care and support.  (184-5) Being married to one’s job is a personal commitment, a fundamental constituent of one’s identity.  (18)


Ilene Philipson, a psychotherapist, examines our obsession with work through the experiences of her patients.  We are a nation in love with work.  We measure success by how much we work and we work for self-expression and self-actualization.  Work increasingly provides the core of our emotional lives.  We work for our self-worth, for recognition, for self-esteem, for a sense of belonging, and for involvement in something bigger than ourselves—benefits traditionally arising from family and community. 


As family and community life become less vibrant and emotionally rich, work becomes not just a place to work but a place to live, a family, the emotional hub of life. 


One client admitted he increasingly lived for the praise.  Another described a deep desire to be needed and to help others.  We rely on the workplace to satisfy our emotional needs and prop up our identity and security in the world.  At the same time we are depleting our lives beyond work.


Giving corporations power to define our worthiness is dangerous and may result in psychic and emotional collapse when it fails.  (32)


“As we give more of ourselves to work, we lose sight of our need for connection with others that used to develop in neighborhoods, extended families, congregations, PTAs,….  We lose sight of our need for recognition for who we are, rather than for what we do.”  (34)  We lose our capacity as citizens.  (35)


Traditionally permanence, security and acceptance came from family and community.  But we have been pulled apart from one another.  (36-7)  The concept and experience of family life has changed dramatically, typified by instability, fragility, singleness, and isolation.  (40)  What it means to be a man or woman has been redefined. 


Continuous personal growth, self-fulfillment, autonomy, and freedom from guilt are considered the marks of psychological maturity and health.  (46)  “Obligation and responsibility have been recast as repression and an unwillingness to be autonomous and grow.”  (47)


Families are more isolated from one another as they turn to TV and internet.  Fictional TV families replace actual families.  (55-6)


“Having annexed their lives to their jobs, they cannot imagine how to connect with others outside of work, how to find identity, purpose, or a sense of belonging that is not in some way structured by an employer.”  (69)  Friendships are marginalized.  Emotional ascetics, we have less fun, less attention, less understanding, less intimacy, and less care.  We don’t know how to have leisure.  (72)


Relationships are oxygen.  (81)  There is no ‘self’ outside a matrix of relations with others.    To have a stable sense of self we need dependable, sustaining others.  They become part of who we are.  (83)  However, for most of us, our relationships at work are not dependable or sustaining, but contingent and thus faulty.  (85)


If we’ve had deficient relationships in childhood, we may have a tremendous hunger for acknowledgement, acceptance, recognition, admiration, praise, love, care, and belonging.  (86-88)  Overinvestment in work to obtain these things seems to be a social trend, “the new American way of life.”  (89)


Too many are suffering from an attention deficit.  We work more and have less time and opportunity to attend to each other’s needs.  (90)


The single most important variable in employee productivity and loyalty is the quality of the relationship between employees and their direct supervisors, specifically “someone who sets clear and consistent expectations, cares for them, values their unique qualities, and encourages and supports their growth and development,” in other words, internal and emotional support.  (92)


“Corporations increasingly offer serial monogamy at best and one-night stands, at worst, to their employees.”  (97)  “…the new economy is filled with land mines of confusion and betrayal.”  (98) 


“The worst quality an employee can evince is a tendency to resist change.”  “In the new economy, valuing history, loyalty, time for reflection, thoughtfulness, and a genuine respect for others’ opinions that are outside the change-insurgent norm, is not only outmoded but denigrated.”  Accumulated knowledge, insights into company culture and history aren’t valued.  A senior member of the organization is not respected but considered an anachronism, an embarrassment.  (99-100) 


“We are asked to be change insurgents who not only accept continuous change in the workplace, but value ita as a way of life.  We are to eschew safety and security and, instead, welcome endless flexibility and risk.  If we experience a failure at work, we are to move on, remembering that the marketing of the self is all we can rely on.”  (111)


“The ideal company envelops its employees in shared values and purpose, provides identity within the corporate embrace….”  “…corporations cater not only to their employees’ need for compensation but to their emotional longings as well.” (113)  People vested in their work work harder… engaging not only their hands but their heads and hearts.  (114) 


         The Old Way                          The New Way

Security                                   Opportunity

Detachment                             Total Commitment

Hierarchy                                 We’re All Equal           

Work And Fun Don’t Mix         Pamper Me

It’s Just A Job                          It’s So Much More  (116)


The workplace is offering a prefab life.  (133)


“There is little in our lives that allows us to feel truly alive, courageous, important.  Desires for meaning, purpose, and feeling alive “are channeled into work, where so many of us feel more alive and therefore live more of our lives.”  (143)


Employees’ pain “is often rooted in the contradiction between what employers tell their employees they are doing, that is, working together as a team, creating a family or community where everyone’s opinions are values, promoting a shared purpose—and what they actually do—that is, lay off, demote, transfer, promote, and downsize based on the needs of shareholders or venture capitalists, rather than those of employees.”  (144)


About 85% of patients married to their jobs are women.  Women bring different needs, interests, and ways of being into the workplace, particularly greater relational needs, more concern about caring and being cared for.  (148-51)  They also face greater economic dilemmas, lower pay scales and children to support.  (158)  “Many women are attempting to preserve domestic culture through bringing that culture to work with them each morning.”  (166) 


Some have been married to the job so long they have no access to experiencing other ways of being.  (173)  They have lost connection to friends and family and even the awareness that these things matter.  (174)


To understand what one feels, what motivates us, to put words to it and examine it, requires time and space for reflection, just what our expanded work commitments prevent.  Philipson suggests beginning the process with the following steps:

  • Set boundaries and say no.
  • Try to leave work at a specific time each day.
  • Set aside 10 minutes or more each day at work to reflect on your actions, thoughts and feelings.
  • Establish limits on electronic communication devices
  • Consider what motivates you to do extra non-work services like running errands or bringing in donuts.
  • Try to set aside time each day to get away from the work site.
  • Make close friends who are not coworkers.
  • Choo0se an activity involving family or friends over extra work.
  • Take your vacations.
  • Put into words things that you feel upset about  (189-90)


We need to question our understanding of success and the American dream.  Material possessions and long work hours can be a life without depth, connection, or meaning and no human safety net.  An understanding of success, happiness and fulfillment which is completely self sufficient, independent, unencumbered and autonomous can mean being isolated, alone, and afraid, a life without meaning and connection.  (220-24)  This is a new form of bondage. 


“We deny our interdependence and conflate it with weakness.  To be in need is to be needy.  To be unencumbered is to be free.  And to be free allows one to work excessively long hours.”  “As a society, our devotion to work and our veneration of the market have brought indifference into the very core of our social fabric.  Market transactions, by definitions, are founded in indifference, and indifference is the opposite of love, connection, and care.  It…renders us alone and insignificant, …a society that is remarkably uncaring and indifferent.  We have freed ourselves from the tyranny of obligatory bonds, long-term commitments, and the authority of families and communities to supervise and constrain us.”  “However, all of this freedom from seems to have rendered many of us insecure, and unsure of what is meaningful and right.  Freedom can only exist in a context of security.”  (226-27)


“We are diminished as individuals and as a society.  When we no longer feel we can rely on each other directly, I would argue that we are more likely to feel alone, depressed, and insecure…” (229)


“…we have convinced ourselves that intimacy, friendship, neighborliness, citizenship, attention, care, and leisure don’t matter all that much.  We perpetuate this denial at our peril.”  “Perhaps finding ways of connecting with, committing to, and caring about each other is the highest goal to which we can aspire, both as individuals and as a society.”  (235)


Appendix:  Quiz to determine Are You Married to Your Job?  (236)