Just Manic Enough? Work’s Role in Harming Mental Health

For a long time, I envied my husband his passion for his work. Where I had a job, he had a mission.

As an aerospace engineer, John has always believed that if we fail to push the boundaries and expand our frontier into space, humankind won’t ultimately survive. A little Star Trek, I know, but I’ve always liked science fiction, and the guy’s a rocket scientist, for Pete’s sake. It’s hard not to be impressed by that.

From the moment I met him, I knew he was ambitious. And I admired that it wasn’t money, fame, or a sense of adventure that drove him, but a desire to advance the cause of his fellow man.

So when he put his career ahead of our relationship in the months leading up to his hospitalization, I didn’t complain. We rarely saw each other during the week—I had a teaching job that required me to be at work by 7:00 am and in bed by about 9:30 pm, whereas he was getting up around 9:00 am and coming home after midnight—but I knew that he was trying to build a future for us, and I only wished I could find a job I loved as much as he loved his.

He was working hard, but he was happy, and I loved him for that.

My attitude changed dramatically, however, after his company called the cops to stop by our apartment and check on him because they couldn’t get a hold of me (I was at work) and John was, as his VP of HR described it, “incoherent and distraught.”

That day, as I dragged John to the doctor, the psychologist, and finally the mental hospital, I began to wonder if a passion for space fully explained the zeal with which he approached his job.

Could his unwavering ambition be part of the psychotic illness that had assailed him? And would it wind up costing him his career?

*****

As I wrote in my last post, when work it put in its proper place, it plays an important role in our lives. It allows us to support ourselves and our families, it gives us a way to contribute to society, and it serves a vital role in building our self-esteem.

The problem is, though, that so many companies reward work/life imbalance. Start-ups (like the one John worked for) are particularly notorious for this.

Many start-ups attract high-achieving employees by offering them stock options. Oftentimes, the employee’s base salary is lower than it would be at an established company, but the stock options—should the company ever go public by doing an initial public offering (IPO)—would be worth their weight in gold.

The stock options act as an incentive to get you to work as hard as you possibly can: the more effort and hours you put in, the more likely the company is to be successful. The more successful the company is, the more likely an IPO. And the more likely an IPO, the more likely you are to get rich off your stock options.

Now I’m certainly not advocating for going to work and just “phoning it in,” so to speak. But when everyone around you is working 12, 14, or even 16 hours days, it’s easy for your definition of “commitment to the job” to become skewed, as John’s did.

While working on a $25M project, he stopped sleeping so he could meet his deadline. After three nights of no sleep, he told me that he’d taught his team members a silent language of gestures so that they could understand him without having to speak with him. Then he started petitioning his manager for a place to sleep in the office. No matter how many times his boss told him that nobody slept in the office, John refused to accept he was telling him the truth.

Finally, the day his company called the police, John told me that his colleagues had hypnotized him. His company was comprised of zombies. They’d learned how to put themselves in a trance so they could work, work, work, work, work.

*****

It’s not just individual companies that promote work/life imbalance; in many ways, crazy dedication to the job is glorified by our culture.

A recent article in the New York Times titled “JUST MANIC ENOUGH: SEEKING PERFECT ENTREPRENEURS” describes Seth Priebatsch, a technology entrepreneur whose company big-name venture capitalists have poured money into. According to the article:

“Elevated” hardly describes this guy. To keep the pace of his thoughts and conversation at manageable levels, he runs on a track every morning until he literally collapses. He can work 96 hours in a row. He plans to live in his office, crashing in a sleeping bag. He describes anything that distracts him and his future colleagues, even for minutes, as “evil.”

He is 21 years old.

So, what do you give this guy — a big check or the phone number of a really good shrink? If he is Seth Priebatsch and you are Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm in Lexington, Mass., the answer is a big check.

According to John Gartner, a psychologist and author of THE HYPOMANIC EDGE, entrepreneurs can often be described as hypomanic, a characteristic—or psychiatric disorder—that contributes to their success.

A WTN News article from 2005 states, “Gartner considers hypomania to be an advantageous condition because it is ‘a temperament characterized by an elevated mood state that feels highly intoxicating, powerful, productive and desirable’ and motivates people to perform and most often over achieve and lead to success.”

But there are two problems with Gartner’s hypothesis. First, it’s impossible to predict whether an entrepreneur’s hypomania will tip over into full blown bipolar disorder. Seth Priebatsch is only 21. My husband’s psychotic break didn’t happen until he was 29.

Second, Gartner’s definition of success is narrowly confined to success in business. Some of traits Gartner identified in hypomanic entrepreneurs include:

  • Easily irritated by minor obstacles.
  • Overspends in his business and personal life.
  • Acts out sexually.
  • Acts impulsively with poor judgment in ways that can have painful consequences.
  • Prone to making enemies and feels he is persecuted by those who do not accept his vision and mission.

I don’t know about you, but, to me, those attributes don’t exactly scream, “I’m someone with a successful personal life.”

In fact, the life of Seth Priebatsch, as described in the New York Times, sounds pretty sad:

He does not socialize. He no longer reads books, nor does he watch TV or movies. He works from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week. He was reluctant to have a photographer visit for this article because he worried that it might distract employees… He’s perfectly at ease negotiating with V.C.’s, but has had just one girlfriend…

“I had friends at Princeton; I’m sure it’d be fun to see them,” he says. “But I know that what I’m going after is huge and others are going after it, and if they’re not, they’re making a mistake. But other people will figure it out, and every minute that I’m not working on it is a minute when they’re making progress and I’m not. And that is just not O.K.”

Priebatsch, and other hypomanic entrepreneurs like him, have fallen into the trap that Clay Christensen describes in HOW WILL YOU MEASURE YOUR LIFE?: That tendency to forget that work is not the “most powerful and ensuring source of happiness,” and to overinvest in their careers at the expense of their personal lives, their relationships, and their mental health.

*****

In the end, my husband’s mental illness did not cost him his career. He still loves space, he still wants to achieve great things, but his psychotic episode forced him to readjust his definition of a productive workday. It forced him to better balance his work with his life.

Which is a-okay with me, for although I didn’t complain during the few months leading up to John’s hospitalization, I would have started complaining soon enough. It’s hard to be with someone who constantly puts you in second place. It’s hard to constantly take a back seat to somebody else’s mission.

In my book, no mania (or hypomania) is good mania. Regardless of whether you’re sitting in a mental institution or fielding calls from venture capital firms at all hours of the night and day, the cost is just too high.

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6 Responses to Just Manic Enough? Work’s Role in Harming Mental Health

  1. Heather, this is a fantastic and informative post! I was browsing your blog, and I really appreciate your honesty and willingness to cut through the many, many myths of mental illness. (Your blog is also so well-written!).

    BTW, just reading the description of Seth made me nervous. It’s interesting just how much our culture rewards workaholic ways.

    I also am very passionate about what I do, but I have to unplug and leave my writing. Which is actually a good thing for my writing. I think people forget that you can also get ideas from truly getting out there and living life. Finding a balance is tough but it’s critical.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Margarita! I enjoy your blog, too!

      All I could think when I was reading that NYT article about Seth was, What’s going to happen to this kid’s company if he crashes and burns? So many of his behaviors sound eerily similar to John’s prior to his fullscale break. But maybe the venture capitalists don’t care too much if Seth has to step down at some point—they’ll take control of the company and profit from his ideas and scary/hypomanic drive. And that, I think, is where my big problem with our workaholic culture comes in—it’s all about using people, wringing as much as you can get out of them until they run dry.

      Setting personal boundaries is, as you point out, vital not only for our mental well-being, but for generating creative new ideas as well.

      • Heather, I totally agree! It’s interesting to notice how work culture has changed. I wasn’t born till the 80s so I can’t speak from experience but it seems like decades ago, companies truly cared about their employees. People worked for one employer for years and years, so I guess they were able to cultivate meaningful relationships. But still. There’s not very much loyalty to workers anymore.

        And it’s so true that when you focus all your energies on one thing, and G-d forbid it crashes, you end up in a very difficult and really heartbreaking situation.

        And you’re very welcome! 🙂

  2. Larry Bone says:

    My objection to “getting on the right medications” is that 45,000 people did and are now dead. You could say that they died for Science. But I don’t think teenagers and kids should be subjected to the risk of committing suicide just so the shrinks and drug companies can say these medications are totally safe and make billions of dollars off them. I think it’s inhumane and it’s a symptom of how cold and callous this generation has become.

    • Hi Larry,

      I certainly don’t think the pharmaceutical industry—or the health care industry, for that matter—is perfect, but medication helps a lot of people who are dealing with mental illness, including my husband. Does every medication work for every individual? No. Should people be monitored closely when they’re on these medications? Yes. But to deny people access to medications that can help them live without the terror of hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and disordered thinking seems cruel to me.

      Best,

      Heather

  3. There’s a joke/story that begins with Americans vacationing in Mexico, noticing a man napping in a hammock, in the middle of the afternoon. The Mexican man explains that he takes out his small boat in the morning, catches some fish, comes home and sells it, makes love to his wife and plays with his children, then takes an afternoon nap.

    The Americans think this is terribly lazy and unambitious, and suggest that the man should fish ALL DAY LONG, so he can sell MORE fish, and then he can buy a BIGGER boat, and hire employees – and yes, he’ll have to work 12-14 hours a day, but after a few years, he’ll have a fleet of boats, and after only 20-20 years altogether, he’ll be able to cut back his hours to work only mornings, come home and make love to his wife, and take an afternoon nap.

    People from Europe and other cultures take long vacations. They may not have McMansions filled with the latest electronic gadgets, but they spend time with family and loved ones. Dinners are an event to be savored and shared together.

    In America, too many people have bought into a consumerist culture of work-work-work so you can buy more THINGS (that you won’t have time to enjoy) and have a bigger HOUSE (filled with fewer people you barely spend any time with.)

    IMO, we all need to step off the hamster wheel and reconsider what “success” really is. Are you really a “success” if you’ve ruined your physical and mental health, if you’ve cut yourself off from friends and family because you don’t have time for them, if you head a company where all the employees secretly hate you, and turnover is horrific because so few people want to live like you do?

    Myself, I’d rather have the afternoon nap now.

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