Advice for the Workaholic in Your Life
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Advice for the Workaholic in Your Life

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Advice for the Workaholic in Your Life

Malissa Clark is an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Georgia, where she leads the Healthy Work Lab. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the BBC, Time, Glamour, The Atlantic, HuffPost, and others.

Below, Malissa shares five key insights from her new book, Never Not Working: Why the Always-On Culture Is Bad for Business–and How to Fix It. Listen to the audio version—read by Malissa herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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1. Workaholism is more than just long work hours.

It would be incorrect to assume that every employee working long hours is a workaholic. There are various reasons someone might work long hours, including financial demands, a busy season that makes long hours unavoidable, or a demanding boss who requires it. Workaholism is less about these external factors and more about internal motivators.

So what is workaholism, then? Scholars have identified four key components. The first is the most obvious—long work hours. Workaholics tend to work well beyond what is required and expected. They take work with them on vacations, refuse to take sick days, and bring work into virtually every aspect of their life. But workaholism is much more than just long hours spent working.

Workaholism also involves that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you can’t rest and should be working all the time. The technical term scholars use to describe this motivation is introjected motivation. Along with this internal pressure comes feeling negative emotions when you’re not working. This can include feeling guilty and anxious when taking time off work, or feeling frustrated or irritated when something prevents you from working. For many workaholics, there is no legitimate excuse for not working, so any activity that detracts from working is likely to make the workaholic feel guilty.

The final aspect of workaholism is cognitive. It’s the fact that even if you are not physically doing work, you are thinking about that email you should send, mulling over that upcoming work project, or ruminating about something that happened at work that day.

Workaholism, just like any other aspect of our personality or work style, exists on a continuum. It’s not as cut-and-dried as, “You either are or aren’t a workaholic.” You might relate to some of these aspects of workaholism, but not all of them. Regardless, just because you may not relate to being a full-blown workaholic, it doesn’t mean you aren’t at an increased risk of negative outcomes of overwork.

2. Workaholism is different than work engagement, and here’s why it matters.

On the surface, workaholism and work engagement can look very similar since both involve investing a great deal of time and energy into your work. But there are some important differences. Here are two key questions to consider:

  • Where is the energy being spent?
  • What is the motivation to work?

First, let’s look at where the energy is being spent. Engagement is thought of as what’s achieved while working, a state of being excited and vigorously absorbed in one’s work. On the other hand, much of what defines workaholism occurs outside of those work boundaries—tinkering with your work project instead of going to the beach, constantly taking work calls when you’re with your family, or having obsessive thoughts about work. When the energy of work consistently permeates every aspect of your life, and you cannot keep that in check, that suggests workaholism. Engaged workers have a much easier time turning off work (mentally and physically) at the appropriate time, whereas workaholics cannot.

Second, an even more critical differentiator between engagement and workaholism is the motivation behind work. Psychologists have discovered that a critical driver of employee engagement is intrinsic motivation, which is when someone does something because they love it and genuinely find the work interesting. Given this, it probably isn’t surprising that organizational scholars have found that employees who are engaged are happier, healthier, and more productive.

But there is another type of motivation that drives people to put work at the center of their lives: introjected motivation. Internal feelings that we “ought to” always be working, striving to prove our worth, are the essence of introjected motivation. In contrast to intrinsic motivation, organizational scholars have linked introjected motivation—along with workaholism—to a variety of negative outcomes.

“Scholars have referred to these individuals with workaholic tendencies and high work engagement as engaged workaholics.”

You might think, “I have some workaholic tendencies, but I also love my work. Can I be both?” The answer is yes. Scholars have referred to these individuals with workaholic tendencies and high work engagement as engaged workaholics.

One myth about workaholism is the belief that being an engaged worker will cancel out any negative effects of being a workaholic. The tiny kernel of truth is that loving your work may provide a slight buffer from the most negative outcomes of workaholism. Other research flat-out debunks this myth of the engaged workaholic as a positive form of workaholism, finding any positive effects of work engagement were effectively eliminated if the individual was also a workaholic. Thus, loving your work may provide, at best, slightly less negative outcomes, but most likely, any benefits of loving your work may be eventually washed out by your work compulsion—particularly if we look at the long-term risks of workaholism.

3. Workaholics are not more productive.

One of the biggest myths about workaholism is that workaholics are more productive. In fact, a great deal of research suggests that, at best, there is no relationship between workaholism and productivity and, at worst, that workaholism is detrimental to performance.

There are several reasons for this. First, it is well-documented that workaholics tend to overextend themselves and don’t leave time to recover. Recovery experiences—not just restful sleep but also letting go of our work when we are awake—are an essential process that allows us to replenish the mental and physical energy we expended during the workday.

Not only do workaholics not adequately recover from work, but they also operate in constant fight-or-flight mode. There is a cumulative effect of strain on our bodies, so as we work more, we need even more recovery. This cumulative strain makes us less effective at work as the number of hours we work increases. Think about your own energy levels at the beginning of the workday compared to the end of the workday. Do you notice a difference in how productive you are? Economist John Pencavel has been studying this phenomenon for decades, and his models show that productivity starts to decrease after about 55 hours of work. In fact, applying his law of diminishing returns, someone who works 70 hours is no more productive than someone who puts in 55 hours.

Workaholics can also be difficult teammates and bosses, setting unrealistic timelines and causing unnecessary stress for others by overcommitting the team. They also may be more likely to engage in certain forms of counterproductive work behavior, such as aggression and incivility.

Our worship of the ideal worker—someone fully devoted to and available for the job—continues to perpetuate the myth that workaholics are the best workers because we are still rewarded for long hours. Case in point—research conducted in the consulting industry found that managers could not tell the difference between those who were workaholics and those who pretended to be workaholics. Both groups received similar performance evaluations, even though their actual hours worked varied dramatically.

4. It’s more important than ever to disconnect from work.

Technology tethers us to our work through smartphones and “productivity” apps such as Slack and Teams, and most workers regularly check their email on their smartphones, which never leave our side, even after work hours or on vacation. The rise in remote work means work and family spheres are no longer separate, blurring the boundaries between work and home. Or as Andrew Barnes, cofounder of 4 Day Week Global, told me, “We’re not working from home; we’re sleeping in the office.” This is our new world of work.

“The patterns that emerged in a crisis have been normalized.”

During the pandemic, workdays became longer, and we got used to working outside traditional work hours. Microsoft conducted several studies analyzing keystroke and Teams chat data. Comparing data gathered during Covid to pre-pandemic data, during the pandemic, we were much more likely to work in the evenings, typically between 8:00 and 11:00 p.m., in what has been dubbed the “triple peak day.” Second, during the pandemic, we were much more likely to work during the weekends, as the data indicate the number of work messages sent and received on the weekends increased by 200 percent during COVID.

Unfortunately, the patterns that emerged in a crisis have been normalized. We have gotten used to them in just the same way people may develop a bad habit. What’s even worse is that this increased workload, connectivity to work, and altered communication patterns have been tacked on to our existing schedules, meaning we are working longer and staying more tethered to work than ever before.

5. Leaders and organizations may be unintentionally encouraging overwork.

There are several ways in which a leader’s workaholic tendencies encourage overwork among their team and subordinates. Many of these may be more obvious, such as the boss who constantly texts their employees and expects an immediate response or the boss who overcommits the unit by making unrealistic promises to clients for when a project can be completed.

Perhaps you are a workaholic and genuinely want your employees to have more work-life balance than you have. You may be saying all the right things, but if you are role-modeling workaholic behaviors—say, working long into the evening or spending weekends sending work emails—your team will notice this and try to conform to what is being modeled to them.

Even if you don’t identify as a workaholic, you may still unintentionally encourage overwork. Perhaps you’ve heard the suggestion to add a statement to your email indicating something like, “I may have different work hours than you; feel free to respond during your regular work hours.” Your intention is right, but this may still be problematic. Industrial-organizational psychologist Lauren Kuykendall calls this status blindness—a phenomenon where people in higher-level positions assume those with less power have the same amount of agency as they do. In other words, just because a leader might be able to choose whether or not to respond to an urgent email or to stay at work to finish a project, this doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals working underneath them will feel the same degree of power to make that decision. So even with a well-intentioned message in your email assuring employees they do not need to respond immediately, there might be too much pressure, due to company norms and expectations or due to the leader’s influence over key rewards, that your subordinates don’t feel they can wait to respond to that email.

“Even if you don’t identify as a workaholic, you may still unintentionally encourage overwork.”

Overwork may also be unintentionally encouraged and reinforced at the organizational level. For example, regardless of how much an organization touts its employee wellness initiatives and work-family policies, if the norm in the company is that bosses send emails at ten o’clock and no one uses their vacation time, employees will quickly pick up on this discrepancy, and you can actually create more cynicism. It’s not enough to simply listen to what the organization says it values. It’s essential to look more closely at things like what behaviors get rewarded. Who gets promoted? What qualities are highly prized in your organization?

As a society, we continue to perpetuate the myth that long hours and devotion to work are indicative of performance because of the ever-present overwork norms in our society. We see the dangers of overwork and workaholism all around us, and we can’t just pass off the blame to the workers themselves. Organizations (and societies) need to recognize their role in the problem. It may be daunting to try and tackle a problem that seems as massive and systemic as this. It will not be easy or quick. It’s also not something individuals can fix themselves, although the role of individuals in the larger organizational system is critical.

My hope is that I have provided you with some research-backed tools to begin the process of re-evaluating and re-sculpting the way we work. It is, in fact, possible for organizations to be wildly successful when they value both productivity and the health and well-being of workers.

To listen to the audio version read by author Malissa Clark, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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