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Does being a workaholic endanger your health? It depends how much your job engages you, study finds

August 22, 2017

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , (718) 398-7642,

Workaholism seems here to stay. A coinage generally credited to the late psychologist Wayne Oates in 1968, it has been perceived to infect generations stretching from baby boomers to millennials, and within the past year has given rise to a flurry of stories from Japan blaming it for an outbreak of suicides.

Is working very long hours, especially if done compulsively, the peril to life or health it has been widely thought to be? A new study provides some surprising answers.

Focusing on four indicators that predict heart disease and diabetes, the research in the current issue of Academy of Management Discoveries finds no evidence that long hours per se give rise to those risk factors. And even when long hours reflect a compulsive drive to overwork, as is the case with workaholics, poor health is not necessarily the outcome, even as it becomes more likely.

As the study explains, "While the majority of workaholics work long hours...compulsive work mentality poses a more serious health risk than the act of working long hours.” Still, even so, "workaholism is not always bad for health...We hope our study inspires employees and strive for the engaged form of workaholism, characterized by investing a lot of time and energy in work, being preoccupied with work, but also enjoying one's work."

""Engagement is the key," comments Lieke L. ten Brummelhuis of Simon Fraser University, who carried out the study with Nancy P. Rothbard of the University of Pennsylvania and Benjamin Uhrich of the University of North Carolina Charlotte. “There's a big difference between workers whose propensity to overwork and inability to relax after hours stem from absorption in the challenges their job presents (in other words, engagement) and those for whom it reflects, say, anxiety about the job or obsessive ambition. It's the difference between compulsion driven by engagement and compulsion in the absence of engagement, with the latter but not the former representing a threat to health."

She adds: "None of this is to suggest that life with workaholics is easy. We found them more subject to depression, sleeping problems, and fatigue than other workers and to such psychosomatic complaints as headaches, sinus congestion and stomach upsets. Yet, something can shield them from having these conditions develop into the four health risk factors we measured – obesity, high blood pressure, and worrisome levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides. And that something is work engagement.”

The researchers came to this conclusion through questionnaire responses from 1,277 workers at a large international financial consulting firm, followed a month or two later by medical screening of 763 of that group. The surveys provided measures of employees' work hours, including overtime, as well as the following:

■ Workaholism, through responses on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) to such statements as "I feel guilty when I am not working on something" or "I put myself under pressure with self-imposed deadlines when I work." or "It is hard for me to relax when I am not working."

■ Work engagement, through responses to statements probing vigor (e.g., "At my job I feel strong and vigorous"), dedication (e.g., "I am enthusiastic about my job") and absorption (e.g., When I am working, I forget everything else around me.")

■ An array of behavioral and physical data, including 1) stress-related health complaints, such as headaches, stomach upsets, and sinus problems, 2) sense of well-being, including experience of depression, sleep troubles, and fatigue, and 3) personal, family, and job resources.

As indicated, the surveys were followed a month or two later by medical screenings for the above-mentioned four risk factors for heart disease and diabetes – obesity, high blood pressure, and concerning levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides.

The authors found no association between work hours per se and either stress-related physical complaints, such as headaches or stomach upsets, or the four risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

In contrast, they did find workaholism to be significantly associated with stress-related physical complaints. But evidence that these would lead to heart disease or diabetes was found only for employees with below-average work engagement. Workaholics with above-average engagement showed no sign of being at risk for these serious health disorders. Indeed, their risk factors were lower than those of non-workaholics, suggesting a surprising health benefit of working compulsively at something one loves.

The findings lead the authors to observe that "it is not very informative to look only at work hours when one is interested in employee health...Work cognitions (i.e., workaholism) and affective work experiences (i.e., work engagement) are more predictive of employee health. Therefore, instead of assessing the employee's weekly work hours, it is more informative to ask if someone has compulsive work tendencies and whether or not they feel engaged at work."

What accounts for the different health prospects of workaholics who are engaged and those who are not? As the professors explain, it’s the ability of engaged workers to make better use of job-related, personal and family resources, which “can prevent their primary health complaints from accumulating into more severe health risks. For instance, engaged workaholics who notice they often have a headache due to their excessive work behavior may use resources (e.g., focusing on a rewarding family life, taking time off to recover) to diminish these headaches.”

Adds Prof. ten Brummelhuis: “Morale comes into play here. Engaged workers tend to be oriented toward solving problems and meeting challenges, which leads them to seek out resources that can be of help to them. With non-engaged workers that is less likely to occur.”

The authors see the study as providing practical lessons for both individuals and companies.

Says Prof. ten Brummelhuis: “Individuals beset by the psychosomatic complaints and other woes that workaholism can bring should ask themselves: ‘What is the reason I am working so hard?’ If it is out of love for the job, go for it. If not, health alarm bells need to sound, and changes need to be made.”

As for what companies can do, the authors note that “engagement goes up when employees receive feedback, have rewarding relationships at work, and perform challenging and meaningful task. Job designs that include these factors may encourage engagement, thereby preventing impaired health among workaholics. Organizational culture is another possible target for intervention. Organizations could implement incentive systems that reward engagement and output quality instead of staying connected to work 24/7.”

The study, “Beyond Nine to Five: Is Working to Excess Bad for Health?” is in the fall issue of Academy of Management Discoveries. This peer-reviewed journal is published quarterly by the Academy, which, with almost 20,000 members in 117 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. Its other publications are Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Annals, and Academy of Management Journal.

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