"I have sat at the deathbeds of many people," he said. "And I have never, ever heard one of them say they wished they'd spent more time at the office." I felt myself blushing. The fidgeting stopped and the priest gave a few moments for his words to sink in. "Just think about that," he said. And the sermon was over. Why did I blush? I recognised the person he was talking about. The driven, ambitious creature who puts work before everything else. The 20th-century work machine.
Those priestly words came back to me the other night as I sat watching the Panorama programme on workaholism. There they were: the driven and the desperate, juggling the demands of work and family, chasing the elusive moment when they would have achieved their ambition. Then there would be time to slow down and enjoy the fruits of their labour. It was a fine programme, but it left me feeling depressed.
The two practising workaholics it profiled seemed trapped - creatures of a machine that demands absolute commitment, that regards family life as a distraction from the grand corporate scheme. Yet the routine it described of days that stretched into night, of endless worrying about position and performance, will be familiar to a great many people.
We are a workaholic society. We live in a culture that is enslaved by work. And for all the official trumpeting of family values, who can doubt that our society places a far higher premium on career achievement than it does on parenting skills. Work is where it is at. In our sick culture, work is the family. I remember the words of a colleague, divorced, with access to his young children at weekends, who told me proudly: "If you're not willing to pack in your personal life for what we do, then you've no business doing the job."
The new Working Week Directive is designed to ease the pressure. A maximum working week of 48 hours, guaranteed three weeks' holiday, protection for night and shift workers. All of this is very worthy. But will it tackle the problems of workaholism? I would like to think so, but I have grave doubts. In purely practical terms, the opt-out clause will effectively nullify the requirement of a 48-hour working week. How many employees will refuse to sign away their right to a 48-hour week when confronted with management bullying or bribing?
The prevailing corporate culture in Britain is macho and militaristic. Think of those ridiculous "away days" in which men are encouraged to go rafting down rivers and tramping across assault courses to prove their readiness for corporate battle. The individual who doesn't buy into this is regarded as a wimp: not "on message". The offices and boardrooms of corporate Britain are full of bullying prats who act as though they were planning the D-Day invasion.
I write all of this as a "recovering" workaholic. I still consider myself to be driven and ambitious. I still worry too much about where my career is going. I still work hours that are far too long. But nothing as bad as before. I am making an Augustinian progress away from the workaholic swamp (ie, "Lord, make me a perfectly balanced human being, but not just yet").
The turning-point for me came some years after the wedding described above. I went to my doctor complaining of chest pains and headaches. He asked me to describe my work schedule. I spelled out the grim details. He winced. After a cursory examination, he sighed and asked me simply: "Do you want to wait until the heart attack to slow down, or do you want to start enjoying life now?"
But there is a consideration beyond our own physical and mental health: the welfare of our children. The truth is that it took my child's birth to bring me somewhere close to the real world that exists beyond a career. Anybody who has a child knows exactly how important is parental presence in their lives. And the older my son grew, the greater his need for my presence. I was lucky to be able to make a choice that allowed me to spend more time with him.
For thousands of others there is no such choice. There are many for whom long working hours are an economic necessity. Those in lower income brackets exist in a world where overtime means the difference between a life of penny pinching and a dignified existence. But there is the more insidious problem of the demanding corporate climate.
For women, this is particularly acute. In a male-dominated and macho culture they must be seen to work harder and longer than the boys if they are to have any chance of being regarded as equal players. Add to that the pressure of being a mother, and you have a nerve-shattering combination of pressures. How can corporate bosses imagine what it is like to contemplate phoning in to say that you cannot come to work because the baby is sick? The consequence is that increasing numbers of women are postponing having children until they are well into their thirties. And with the biological clock ticking away, they are encumbered with yet another pressure.
For the woman who stays at home while her husband leaps up the corporate ladder, there is the prospect of long hours spent in the company of small children. The longer hours may deliver material rewards, but they can all too easily create a sense of isolation and despair. There surely comes a point when the realisation dawns that the person you love is being devoured by his career.
And, painful as this is for an adult, consider the effect on a child. Sooner or later, they recognise that their father is an absent figure, the distant man who promises that, this time next year, there will be more time to play. In a house where there are two parents absent for long hours, the effect is even more pronounced.
The effect on children is disturbing for two reasons: first, we suggest that work is more important than family. Secondly, we offer them role models that are grossly distorted. Children do as they are taught. They imitate. And what we are doing is preparing another generation of workaholics, another bunch of slaves to the machine.
It might be tempting to regard this as pyschobabble if we didn't have the grim evidence confronting us every day of our lives. The statistical evidence suggests that we are more stressed and more pressurised than ever. That is why the Government has introduced its Working Week Directive. That is why stress-related illness now acts as such a drain on our health services. We are cracking up, and the directive alone will not solve the problem.
The answer lies at a deeper level. The big corporations must recognise that workaholism makes for bad work. In the longer term, you burn out your best people; productivity declines.
If you want to look at where workaholism takes a society, glance at corporate Japan, wrung out and despondent and unable to respond to the looming recession. For the individual worker, the answer is more difficult. It involves a degree of courage and self-belief that is uncommon in our culture of corporate collectivism. It means saying: "No, I am sticking to my hours, and if you want to deny me promotion or victimise me, go ahead. I will take you to a tribunal, and make you answerable." There are things more important than the company.Reuse content