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A macaque monkey eats a candy in the town of Lopburi, north of Bangkok. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)
A macaque monkey eats a candy in the town of Lopburi, north of Bangkok. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

What we can learn from workaholic monkeys Add to ...

Monkeys are born slackers. The furry procrastinators of the natural world will happily wait for a banana to fall from the tree rather than exert any energy to climb up there and grab one.

But a few years ago, a pair of scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C., managed to turn a group of monkeys into workaholics. By blocking the D2 gene, the monkeys' cells were prevented from receiving dopamine, the chemical that carries messages associated with reward. In laymen's terms, they could no longer tell that their efforts weren't worthwhile.

Without dopamine, the monkeys worked blindly at any task they were given - even if their new, improved work ethic earned them no additional reward.

Sound familiar?

The study suggests that our current cultural predilection toward busyness may be a simple case of bad wiring. Do we work so hard because our brains are broken?

Whatever the answer, there does seem to be an expanding cultural disconnect between effort and reward. People are working harder and feel more stress, but are reluctant to make any major change.

In 2008, more than 1.8-million Canadians worked 50-plus hours a week, and in 2007 more than 2.5-million employees over the age of 15 worked unpaid overtime every week.

Polls show that one in five adults also report being severely time crunched, and 78 per cent of Canadians between 35 and 44 years of age have reported that their daily schedule is more hectic than it was five years ago.

But if we'll (sometimes) admit we're overwhelmed, addicted to our smart phones and unable to contend with myriad responsibilities, many of us also insist we enjoy the pace, that we can handle it and aren't willing to make any substantial change.

According to Ofelia Isabel of Towers Watson, a consultancy that helps companies manage employees, the majority of organizations have work-life balance policies in place that go unused.

Although most employees say they want to improve their work-life balance, they rank career advancement even higher, and believe the two are incompatible.

"We want it all; we want the work-life balance but we want to be the first considered for that interesting project," says Ms. Isabel. "I think there'll always be some tension there."

Dr. Barbara Killenger, a Toronto-based psychologist who specializes in workaholism, says the inclination toward doing it all is deeply ingrained.

"An obsession controls you, you don't control it. And the obsession is to work," she says.

Dr. Killenger believes workaholics have been rewarded and glorified by society to such an extent that we can no longer recognize the inherent cost of such behaviour. We're like monkeys who have had our dopamine blocked.

"You don't feel real unless you're doing something," she said. "The lack of awareness is just so problematic."

With her clients, a willingness to change comes only when someone has reached their breaking point. Sometimes she councils people who have suffered a heart attack or other health problem inflamed by their schedules. In many cases, it's a spouse who says enough, threatening divorce unless balance is restored.

Good thing those workaholic monkeys weren't married.

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