You work long hours. After dinner you whip out your laptop to take care of unfinished business. When it’s time for bed you’re thinking about what’s in store for tomorrow. Your mind is so active you find it hard to fall asleep.
Sound familiar? For many of us, it does. Does that make you a workaholic? What can you do about it?
A recent article by Nancy P. Rothbard and Lieke ten Brummelhuis in the Harvard Business Review explores the differences between being a workaholic and just working long hours. Furthermore, it considers whether there are differences, particularly health differences, between workaholics who are engaged in their work and those who aren’t.
Workaholics and health
Workaholics have a compulsive drive to work hard, thinking about work constantly, and feeling guilty and restless when they are not working. Workaholism is often associated with working long hours, but the two are distinct: it’s possible to work long hours without being obsessed with work, and it is possible to be obsessed with work but only work 35 hours a week or less.
Workaholics can suffer a number of adverse mental health impacts such as stress, anxiety, depression and sleep problems. What’s more, as we’ve pointed out in previous blog postings, behavioral and physical health problems often go hand in hand; workaholics have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The authors conducted a study with 763 participants who were surveyed about their work tendencies, their work motivations and how many hours they worked per week. Participants also completed a health screening which provided information about their biomarkers, such as waist measurement, triglycerides, blood pressure, and cholesterol. In aggregate, these biomarkers are a reliable gauge for an employee’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes — what is referred to as Risk for Metabolic Syndrome (RMS)
The study found that work hours were not related to any health issues, while workaholism was. Specifically, employees who worked long hours (typically more than 40 hours a week), but who did not obsess about work, did not have increased levels of RMS and reported fewer health complaints than employees who demonstrated workaholism. Workaholics, whether or not they worked long hours, reported more health complaints and had increased risk for metabolic syndrome; they also reported a higher need for recovery, more sleep problems, more cynicism, more emotional exhaustion, and more depressive feelings than employees who merely worked long hours but did not have workaholic tendencies.
What if you love what you do?
Workaholics often recognize that they’re obsessed with their work. Their excuse is that they love what they do. Does that matter?
The study differentiated between those who were engaged in their work – enjoyed what they were doing and were easily absorbed in it – and those who weren’t. The study revealed that both types of workaholics reported more psychosomatic health complaints (e.g., headache, stomach problems) and mental health complaints (e.g., sleep problems, depressive feelings) than non-workaholics. However, non-engaged workaholics had higher RMS — a 4.2% higher risk — than engaged workaholics, suggesting that loving your work can mitigate some of the risk of obsessing over it.
The author’s conclude with two key findings:
- When it comes to effects on health, working long hours is not as bad as obsessing over work.
- Workaholics who love their jobs are somewhat protected from the most severe health risks. However, they still reported more depressive feelings, sleep problems, various psychosomatic health complaints, and a higher need for recovery than non-workaholics. These are all signs that well-being among workaholics, regardless of how much they love their job, can be impaired.
What to do if you are a workaholic?
The authors offer several steps to reduce stress and possible health conditions learned from their study.
Begin with acknowledging when your relationship to work is unhealthy — when it feels out of control and is undermining your outside relationships.
Regain control over your work behavior. One way to do this is by setting clear rules for how many hours you will work each day. This can help you accept that there is a point at which you’ve done enough work for the day. If you have trouble “switching off,” you might want to stop working two or three hours before bed. Taking up enjoyable non-work activities, such as seeing friends, watching a movie, reading a book, or learning a new skill, can also help you psychologically detach from work.
Consider why you work excessively and compulsively. The author’s found a striking difference in work motivation between engaged and non-engaged workaholics. Engaged workaholics worked because they enjoyed their work or found their work meaningful. These are intrinsic motivators. Non-engaged workaholics were more likely to work for extrinsic motivators such as money and status. Intrinsic motivation is associated with more optimism, effort, and persistence, whereas extrinsic motivation often instigates anxiety and undermines persistence, making failure more likely.
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