Why being a workaholic is bad for your health

Why being a workaholic is bad for your health
Why being a workaholic is bad for your health

How many hours do you work in a typical week? Forty, fifty-five, seventy or more? Why being a workaholic is bad for your health?

Do you work at home after putting in a long day? Do you give up your family activities so you can catch up with things you didn’t finish at work?

It’s not true that hard work never killed anyone

Research has shown that there’s a major and fundamental difference between behaviour, which results in working long hours, and mentality which is the compulsion to work.

The study was conducted by Lieke ten Brummelhuis, professor of management at the Beedie School of Business, University of Vancouver in Canada and Nancy P Rothbard professor of management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

They asked employees of the Dutch subsidiary of an international consulting firm to complete a health survey and to submit to a range of tests and screening by medical staff. They analysed data from 763 respondents who were asked about their working hours, their skills and their motivation.

This information was cross referenced with data about their weight, history of health complaints, particularly headaches and stomach problems, and their blood test results.

The conclusion was clear: working long hours had no impact on the workers’ health but being addicted to work certainly did. Workaholics, no matter how many hours they work, show an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sleep problems, emotional exhaustion and depressive feelings.

Can’t let go. Being a workaholic.

Sometimes you just have to let go
Sometimes you just have to let go

The key difference between those who work hard and those who can’t stop working is that workaholics struggle to detach themselves from work issues.

They continually push themselves to produce more and more work, they’re constantly chasing deadlines and, to help them cope, their bodies react by elevating blood pressure, increasing output of stress hormones including adrenaline, and cholesterol.

Over the years, this behaviour often causes the body’s stress responses to reset themselves at new, higher levels than before and, as a result, workers experience unrelieved physical and emotional exhaustion which leads to illness.

High blood pressure becomes the norm, mood swings are common, sleeping habits are disrupted and the risks of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and even death are increased.

You can have too much of a good thing. Being a workaholic.

A workaholic’s common response to this is to dismiss it on the grounds that they love the work they do and it’s only people who consider their work a boring grind who suffer.

Knowing this, the two research leaders examined their data to see what difference there was, if any, between workaholics who were highly engaged, vigorous and deeply interested in their work, and those who experienced lower satisfaction levels.

Both types reported more health complaints, physical and mental, than employees who have a more rational work/life balance. Non-engaged workaholics had a 4.2% higher risk for metabolic syndrome (RMS) than engaged workaholics. (RMS is a cluster of physical conditions including body weight and blood pressure that can lead to cardiovascular disease.)

Two key findings. Being a workaholic.

The first is that working long hours, up to a point, doesn’t in itself pose any significant health risks. None of the employees in the study worked more than 65 hours a week, so the study offers no conclusions about the effect of longer working hours for non-workaholics.

But it does seem that the thoughts and feelings we carry with us about our work, especially when we obsess about them, causes more harm than the time we devote to our tasks.

The other conclusion is that workaholics who love their jobs have some protection from severe health risks, perhaps because they believe their efforts are constructive and worthwhile. However, they are still more exposed to a range of debilitating health problems than people who work less.

It's the mental stress that is likely to kill us not the long hours
It’s the mental stress that is likely to kill us not the long hours

It’s all about balance and control. Being a workaholic.

The first thing to realize is that, whether or not you’re a true workaholic, devoting excessive time to work is bound to have an effect on other aspects of your life such as your fitness, family stability and friendships. Workaholics often tend to be solitary types who don’t mix well, mostly because they’re too busy thinking about work to relax and just be themselves.

Understand your own motivations. Are you working for the sheer joy and stimulation you get, or is it simply a brutal forced march towards money, power and status? Those who enjoy what they do are driven by what’s called intrinsic motivators, while those who are simply ambitious are driven by extrinsic ones and it is the second group who are face the most risk to their wellbeing.

If you’re not a workaholic yourself but you have one or two working for you, there’s plenty you can do to help. Try to encourage their intrinsic motivation, give them feasible deadlines, cut red tape and provide them with constructive feedback.

If necessary, restructure their workloads and responsibilities. You know they’re capable of hard work. It’s up to you to make sure they stay healthy enough to do it.

How to regain control of your working life:

  • Set clear limits for the hours you work each day and don’t be so constrained by the clock. If you’re in a position to leave work at 3.00pm on a Friday, do it.
  • If you must work at home, have a space reserved only for that, preferably one where you can shut the door and walk away.
  • Ask for help from your family and friends. Let them know you’re trying to ease up a little and that you want to be included in any plans for socializing and relaxing.
  • Learn to read all over again. Not reports and spreadsheets but real books. Novels are best for reducing stress and clearing your mind but non-fiction works well as long as it’s not related to your work.
  • Decide to develop a new skill, just for the pleasure of mastering it. Remember your obsessive tendencies and make sure you avoid the trap of trying to become a scratch golfer. Your new mantra is: “I’m doing it for fun.”
  • Get regular health check-ups, exercise as much as you can and eat proper balanced meals.

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