I should not have worked on this letter

31st December, 2005

Dear Economist,
My husband is a successful accountant in his early 40s but his behaviour can only be described as workaholic. He is often at the office until 8pm and always brings work home. How can I convince him to cut back on his workload and spend more time with me and the children?
Margot Hillens, London

Dear Mrs Hillens,

Although you describe your husband as workaholic, that term is ambiguous. (You may wish to consult a paper by Hamermesh and Slemrod on “The Economics of Workaholism” subtitled “We Should Not Have Worked on this Paper”.) The first possibility is that your husband is not addicted to work, he simply prefers working to being at home – or, to be blunt, he prefers accountancy to you. If this is true, the solution is to make home life more attractive: learn to cook, invest in a better haircut and spend some time on an exercise bike.

Alternatively, your husband may be desperately trying to cut down on his work and need your help. He may be wracked with guilt after every late night. If this seems more accurate, you must remove temptations and create strong barriers against relapses. Hide his BlackBerry and take him out to dinner with important guests. A final possibility is that your husband is a “rational addict”. His work is addictive in the sense that the more he does it the more he wants to do it, but his activity is rational in the sense that he has anticipated this and still decides to work. The path away from rational addiction is not to “cut back” but to go cold turkey. That would mean your husband retiring immediately. Be careful what you wish for.

Also published at ft.com.

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