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 “unravel the difference between behavior (working long hours) and mentality (a compulsion to work, or what we call workaholism).” In 2010, the two researchers piloted a study “at the Dutch subsidiary of an international financial consulting firm with over 3,500 employees”.
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 (such as waist measurement, triglycerides, blood pressure, and cholesterol), which, when aggregated, are a reliable gauge for an employee’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes . . . referred to as Risk for Metabolic Syndrome (RMS),” the researchers explained. “We also controlled for a host of factors such as gender, age, education, and family history of cardiovascular disease.”
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. “Employees who worked long hours, . . . but who did not obsess about work, did not have increased levels of RMS and reported fewer health complaints than employees who demonstrated workaholism,” they wrote.
Workaholics’ complaints were not affected by the number of hours worked. Instead, however, they reported “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.”
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 I forget about work the minute I decide I’ve done enough for the day.”
By contrast, the answers from a workaholic survey respondent illustrated his “compulsion to work hard” and restlessness when not working. “He continues to ruminate about his job and often finds it difficult to fall asleep and recharge before the next morning,” the researchers wrote. “When asked about his general stress levels, he mentioned that he ‘cannot remember the last time not feeling stressed or anxious about 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. “When your biological systems keep working around elevated set points, you have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, and even death.”
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 “we differentiated between workaholics who reported being highly engaged with their work--meaning they enjoyed their work, felt vigorous at work, and got easily absorbed in their work--and workaholics who reported low 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.
Tracey Block is a communications professional and writer with years of industry experience in editing, public speaking, journalism, creative writing, and copy editing. She is an advisory board member to the city of New Westminster, British Columbia. She has a degree focused in Faculty of Arts--English from University of Manitoba and a post-graduate degree in Journalism. She was hired out of thesis year to write for the Vancouver Sun. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org Please visit her LinkedIn or Twitter page for more info.