Do you feel guilty when you are not working? Do you put in a lot of overtime at work? Do you put more energy into your work than into relationships with family and friends?
Having a strong work ethic has long been considered a positive characteristic. Yet in recent years, much more is being published about the negative impacts to one’s health--specifically to one's mental health--as a result of too much work.
In an article published last week in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P. Rothbard discussed the issue of working too much. “Is it working long hours that increases our risk of developing health issues?” they asked. “Or is it something else, like . . . compulsive work mentality, that is harmful for health?”
Their study helped describe how behavior and excess work hours is linked to someone's mental health. In 2010, the two researchers piloted a study at a large firm of over 3000 employees, specializing in international financial consulting.
The survey questioned the participants about their workaholic behaviors with questions about guilty feelings or self-imposed deadlines. It also examined their work hours, skills, and motivation on the job. Employees were also asked to report any psychosomatic health problems such as stomach issues or headaches.
Health screenings of the participants looked at a variety of biomarkers.
Based on the results of their research of 763 workers who completed both a survey and health screening, Brummelhuis and Rothbard reported that the number of hours worked surprisingly did not correlate to health issues. Workaholism did.
It was the obsession over their work that caused people surveyed to report a greater number of health complaints. They wrote that employees who work excessive hours and yet at the same time did not obsess about their work showed no increase in RMS and reported fewer adverse effects than other employees who had clear workaholism.
Workaholics’ complaints were not affected by the number of hours worked. Instead, however, they reported definite increased levels in sleeping disorders, cynicism, burnout, physical and emotional exhaustion, and symptoms of depression over coworkers who worked an equal number of hours but yet did not show typical symptoms of "workaholism".
The difficulty for workaholics, the duo discovered, was their struggle to “psychologically detach from work”.
One study participant who was not a workaholic, did work long hours but reported feeling “fulfilled”, able to fall asleep easily at night and awaken refreshed. Brummelhuis and Rothbard quoted from her survey response: “I take my work very seriously while I’m working,” she reported, but also stated that immediately upon completing a work day, the tasks were for the most part forgotten.
By contrast, the answers from a workaholic survey respondent illustrated his “compulsion to work hard” and restlessness when not working. These individuals will negatively focus about their job, consumed with stress, and will find it hard to fall asleep and wake up the following morning. Researchers described this type of individual as one who exists in a constant, unending state of stress over work.
Brummelhuis and Rothbard explained that rumination often coexists with such mental health challenges as anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, and stress. “Stress levels in workaholics are therefore chronic,” they said. For workaholics, the body’s stress systems (cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, etc.) that are called into action when one is facing an extreme assignment, do not have the chance to relax since the workaholic's level of stress is constantly elevated.
“When you’re working an excessive workload and continually pushing your system beyond its range . . . Elevated blood pressure may become chronic, and cortisol levels stay elevated,” they wrote. These increased stress levels on the body can elevate risks associated with cardiovascular disease and heart health.
Interestingly, the two noticed that for a minority of workaholics who truly loved their work, they were “somewhat protected from the most severe health risks”.
The pair examined their research findings and were able to differentiate between those who are workaholics that report low work engagement versus those who describe themselves as having high work engagement.
Both groups of workaholics indicated experiencing more psychosomatic health issues and more mental health problems than did non-workaholics. But non-engaged workaholics exhibited a 4.2 percent higher risk of elevated RMS than did engaged workaholics—illustrating that those workaholics who loved their jobs were indeed somewhat more protected mentally and physically. “This number might seem small, but even a small increase can pose a serious health risk,” the researchers wrote.
An article published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2017 explained that although workaholism “is not a condition formally defined as a mental disorder or addiction--it is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)”, it does possess several characteristics common to other disorders. In the article, University of Georgia researcher Malissa Clark, Ph.D, said workaholism is an “internal compulsion [that] is similar to having an addiction.”
“Ultimately, the challenge for anyone is to identify a compulsive work mentality and prevent its consequences,” Brummelhuis and Rothbard concluded.
American Psychiatric Association. (August 3, 2017). Working too Much: Hard Worker or Workaholic? https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-blogs/apa-blog/2017/08/working-too-much-hard-worker-or-workaholic
CNN. (May 25, 2011). CNN.com. Are you a workaholic? http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2011/05/living/workaholic.test/index.html
ten Brummelhuis, L., & Rothbard, N.R., (March 22, 2018). Harvard Business Review. How Being a Workaholic Differs from Working Long Hours—and Why That Matters for Your Health.