You might be working long hours, but this doesn’t necessarily make you a “workaholic”. There are specific health implications if you become engulfed by your work instead of engaged in it.
Have you ever been accused of being a “workaholic” for staying back late, doing work at home or taking on an extra project outside of your usual remit? This can be a frustrating accusation because for some, working brings them joy and putting in some extra hours is less of a chore and more so a satisfying way to spend an evening.
Lucky for them researchers have stepped in, highlighting a clear distinction between being a workaholic and engaging in long hours of work. They also touch on how to identify if someone might be on the pathway towards workaholism and how you can best support them.
What’s the difference?
Nancy Rothbard, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has spent time researching the difference between workaholics and “engaged workaholics ”in her research paper, which she co-authored, titled Beyond Nine to Five: Is working to excess bad for health? [Paywall].
She says that workaholism is less about how long we’re working and more about our relationship with work itself.
“It’s our attitude towards our work: how we think about our work, whether we dwell on it, whether we feel guilty when we’re not working. When you’re a workaholic, the work really looms large in your mind, and it can be really difficult to turn it off,” she wrote in HBR.
So you could be a workaholic and only spend five hours per day actually working (although long hours are usually part and parcel of workaholism).
Those who work long hours but are engaged and energised by their work shouldn’t be referred to as workaholics. They’re the type of employee with a spring in their step, keen to go above and beyond (within reason) to get the job done.
The scary, but perhaps not surprising, part of Rothbard’s research was how it found workaholics are prime candidates for cardiovascular diseases; they’re literally working themselves to death.
Contrary to popular belief, simply working long hours doesn’t lead to specific health implications. In fact, the study of 763 employees found no connection between long hours and metabolic syndrome (high cholesterol or blood pressure levels). Also, when levels of engagement were low, employees were more likely to be susceptible to health impacts.
Engaged workaholics “had a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, just like the people who weren’t workaholics at all. And so that engagement with the work allowed them to really recover as well and to not be as drained from the more obsessive aspect of being a workaholic,” says Rothbard.
While long, engaged hours don’t seem to raise health alarm bells, employees on this end of the spectrum should still proceed with caution. It can be a fine tipping point between being engaged in what you’re doing and being engulfed by it.
How to identify a workaholic
A research team from the Department of Social Psychology at Jaume I University in Spain go one step further, separating various employee work habits into four categories: the workaholic, the engaged worker, the 9-5er and the burned-out employee.
Unsurprisingly, engaged workers achieved the highest positive outcomes and those identified as burned-out had the highest job demands with the lowest resources. They found that 9-5 workers tended to exaggerate the negative aspects of their jobs and were “under challenged” – i.e. had more resources than job demands.
When it came to analysing workaholics the researchers found that, as with other addictions such as alcoholism, one of the main characteristics is denial of the problem.
“As a consequence of this denial, typically workaholics give a better impression of themselves. Interestingly, workaholics scored high on some positive characteristics such as job control and turnover intention, which are common in workaholics because of their need to work at any time and in any place,” say the authors.
So how can you help them to see the light?
Rothbard makes it easy, offering a few simple questions you can ask to determine if you, or a fellow co-worker, fall into the red zone of overworking ourselves just for the sake of it.
These are some of the questions she highlights in her study, with some additions from the Bergen Work Addiction Scale:
- Do you continue working after co-workers have gone home?
- Do you feel guilty if you’re not working on something?
- Do you place pressure on yourself with self-imposed deadlines?
- Do you work as a means to reduce stress, helplessness or depression?
- Do you choose to ignore others calls to cut down on work?
- Do you try and free up your leisure time and dedicate more to working?
- Does work ever have a negative effect on your health?
As HR leaders or managers, these questions are a great starting point if you need to address an employee who might be on the verge of burning out. But once you’ve identified the problem, what comes next?
To understand the remedy for workaholism you need to pay attention to the causes of it. For some, it’s just how they’re wired. Perhaps they’re naturally anxious or they feel they have something to prove. But Rothbard also says this behaviour can be learnt and our environment plays a significant role in this.
If you’re organisation cultivates an “always on” culture, you might find you breed more workaholics. On a smaller scale, if an employee’s direct manager is constantly working themselves down to the bone, the employee might mimic this behaviour in an effort to impress or simply because they feel that’s what’s expected of them.
For sufferers of workaholism, Rothbard suggests packing your out of work schedule with various tasks to avoid leaving any blank spaces that obsessive work-related thoughts could infiltrate. As mentioned above, employee engagement is key to weaning an employee away from their workaholic tendencies.
We’ve previously spoke about interesting ways to engage workers, from using our national love of sport to gamification, but you don’t have to take such a niche approach to reap the benefits. What’s important is finding ways to effectively measure employee engagement and adjust any areas that aren’t working for the majority.
Rothbard’s advice to managers? Offer helpful support where you can, key word being helpful. Get them out of the office if you can see they’re spiralling but don’t feel the need to pull them away from a task they’re enjoying working on.
“Offer them opportunities to turn off, not sending them the email at 11:00 PM might be a good start.”
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