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Cancer and the tetchy workaholic

I came out as a workaholic in 2010; immediately after my first cancer experience. Cutting a long story short, the second cogent thought I had on hearing that I had cancer was that I had spent most of the last 20 years exercised by, worrying about stuff that really didn't matter. In 2010 I said to a room full of people (in the revolving gallery at the top of the BT Tower) that an experience like that changes you forever. I talked about how I had ignored warnings from people I loved and respected about missing your kids growing up, about how I recognised the perniciousness of workaholism and how I understood that work, like alcohol and other stuff you can get addicted to, is addictive typically because it gives you the illusion of comfort and control. It's worth reflecting on the words, this is the phrase that opened the door for me.

In 2010 everything was going to be so different now that I had the insight and wisdom that only a life threatening illness can provide. Cut to 2016. I'm recovering from an operation to remove a (second, unrelated) cancerous tumour from my tongue. What are the facts?

1. I have a letter from one of the Marsden's psychiatrists dated 25 October 2010 saying that I had returned to work too quickly and was working far too many hours.

2. In two weeks I’m returning to New York to facilitate a session for 150 people with my new

tongue (just over six weeks after my operation).

3. I sat last night with seven colleagues at a leaving do and was clear that each one of them

thinks I am mad to be going to New York so quickly.

In 2010 I talked about how workaholics ritualise and explain as normal behaviour that appears inexplicable or abhorrent to others. The example I always gave from my own work life was how I regularly worked between 6 and 10 on Sunday mornings, genuinely believing that it allowed me to do what I needed to do and be a good weekend Dad. The reality, of course, was that, having spent that time at the office I was tired, scratchy and often stressed – so shouty and possibly unpleasant to be with for the rest of Sunday. And probably for some of Saturday too – in contemplation of Sunday.

The truth when I look at the period from 2010 to 2016 is that I struggled to get the right balance in my life, to learn the lessons, to change my behaviour. My hugely tolerant partner and my boys probably experienced me more as a tetchy workaholic than as an enlightened, supportive partner and father. My work colleagues too probably felt more of my stress than they should have. I remember one of them (who met me after 2010 and who has had his own life changing experiences) commenting, “I wouldn’t have thought you’d get like this, not having been through your illness.” I was getting exercised by something unimportant. I remember my response: “You don’t know how I used to be – before!

What I’m saying is that perhaps I made some progress. And perhaps I can make some more now. Even though here I am again, explaining my trip to New York as ‘normal’: how it has given me a stretching but achievable goal that has aided my recovery, that I would have spent so long briefing someone else to do it that it made more sense to do it myself etc etc. The truth is that I probably am doing it again; returning to work too quickly. That’s what a workaholic does. Because a workaholic, by definition places work higher than other things in their list of priorities.

I know that I want things to improve and that there are going to be changes. What I’m not going to do here is to make any sweeping promises to myself, to my family or my work colleagues. However, I have revisited the tools that I shared with people in 2010. And I’ll set them out again for my own benefit and for the benefit of other tetchy workaholics out there! Because all is not lost and you don’t need to have experienced something as severe as cancer to (re-)examine your relationship with work.

The three tools were very simple:

1. Recognise that you have an addiction problem – say very simple ‘I probably work too much’. Nothing is going to happen until you do, while you’re still ritualising and explaining as normal what you currently do.

2. Understand and believe that there are more important things in life than the addictive behaviour i.e. work. It’s become a truism that no-one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time at work. More potently I always ask how many of us will look back on a deal or a project we were responsible for twenty years ago and wish we’d done it differently? We won’t because we’re seldom, if ever, facing the consequences of our work actions every day. Do I need to add that we’ll almost certainly be facing the consequences of how we’ve treated our family?

3. It is going to be much easier if you have someone to help you: a mentor, a friend, someone to share the difficulties and the successes with. This can’t be your life partner. It probably can’t be someone you work closely with.

This, I think is where I went wrong last time. I didn’t enlist anyone’s help. I was enlightened but there was no-one holding me accountable. If there are any volunteers out there, or anyone who wants to examine their relationship with work and thinks that someone to help them may be a good idea – perhaps get in touch through the website or direct .

Matt Dean 

We lost the whole of Tuesday. I woke on Wednesday in Marsden's ICU.  Still high on whatever they had pumped into me!

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