Contrary to popular belief, working long hours and workaholism aren't one in the same.
A 2010 study of 763 employees at the Dutch subsidiary of an international financial consulting firm, published in the Harvard Business Review, looked at work behavior (working long hours) and work mentality (a compulsion to work known as workaholism), and it found that, while workaholism can be detrimental to one's health, working long hours may not be.
The researchers asked the employees to complete a survey asking about their workaholic tendencies (e.g., “I feel guilty when I am not working on something” and “I put myself under pressure with self-imposed deadlines when I work”), their work skills, their work motivation and their work hours in an average week. They were also asked if they'd experienced various psychosomatic health issues such as headaches or stomach problems. And then they were tasked with signing up for a health screening, which gave the researchers information about their various biomarkers, such as waist measurement, triglycerides, blood pressure and cholesterol. When aggregated, those biomarkers are a reliable gauge for an employee’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, which is referred to as Risk for Metabolic Syndrome (RMS). The researchers also controlled for factors such as gender, age, education and family history of cardiovascular disease.
The results show that working long hours (typically more than 40 hours a week) does not lead to any health issues, but workaholism does. Workaholism, whether or not it's combined with working long hours, means obsessing about work and finding it difficult to detach — and ongoing rumination often goes hand in hand with stress, anxiety, sleep issues and more. Perhaps that's why workaholics had more health complaints, had an increased risk for metabolic syndrome and reported a higher need for recovery, more sleep problems, more cynicism, more emotional exhaustion and more depressive feelings than employees who had only worked long hours but did not exhibit workaholic tendencies.
The psychosomatic health complications (e.g., headache, stomach problems) and mental health complaints (e.g., sleep problems, depressive feelings) aren't quite as bad for workaholics who love their jobs, but they're still worse off than those who aren't obsessive. Non-engaged workaholics had higher RMS — a 4.2 percent higher risk — than engaged workaholics. Meanwhile, engaged workaholics reported receiving more social support (e.g., advice, information, appreciation), from their supervisors, co-workers and spouses, than non-engaged workoholics. They scored higher on communication skills, time management skills and general work skills, as well, and they reported much higher intrinsic motivation for work than non-engaged workaholics.
The moral of the story is that, even if you love your job, you still need a work-life balance and to be able to "turn it off" for some time.
"Focusing on one’s engagement and ability to 'switch off' will go a long way in helping employees feel happy at work and outside of it," the researchers suggest. "Managers too can intervene by helping employees find intrinsic motivation; they can re-engage them in their work and provide more support."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.