Are You A Workaholic? Don’t Wear It As A Badge Of Honor


In today's fast-paced and competitive world, it's easy to fall into the trap of workaholism, a prevalent and dangerous condition of our time. While the quote "the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary" emphasizes the value of hard work, taking this to an extreme can be counterproductive or even harmful. Burnout, a consequence of overwork, negatively impacts not only individuals but also their most important relationships. Our culture often seems to celebrate overwork while stigmatizing those who don’t conform.

Addressing this conundrum head-on is Dr. Malissa Clark, author of "Never Not Working: Why the Always-On Culture is Bad for Business—and How to Fix It." As an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of George, Dr. Clark is a leading expert in workaholism, overwork, burnout, and employee wellbeing.

Dr. Clark identifies certain early warning signs of workaholism and offers insight into resisting the downward spiral. She explains that individuals with a predisposition to workaholism often exhibit specific traits that have been present throughout their lives, such as perfectionism and overcommitment. They struggle with idleness, constantly feeling the need to be working on something and unable to relax. Moreover, the allure of today's hustle culture, ingrained from a young age and amplified by social media, places further pressure on individuals to work excessively.

Despite the common belief, research indicates that work hours are not a strong predictor of workaholism. This suggests that workaholism is not solely driven by the number of hours worked, but rather by deeper-rooted personality traits and cultural influences.  

“There are a ton of external reasons someone may work long hours, or take on multiple jobs,” she says. “Many times it’s financial—that income is necessary in order for their family to get by. Or maybe it’s a demanding boss, or a busy time (e.g., tax season). Workaholism, in contrast, is driven by internal demands. It’s that pit in our stomach nagging us when we’re not working; a feeling that we ‘ought to’ or ‘should be’ working all the time. It’s the constant thoughts about work that distract us from being present in the moment and the feelings of anxiety or guilt when we are not working, which only can be eased if we turn back to our work. Sure, long hours are a part of workaholism, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Clark says technology plays a role in people’s obsession with staying so busy that they jeopardize their health, their relationships, and—ironically—their actual effectiveness.

“Technology tethers us to our work in very unhealthy ways,” she says. “By having work at our fingertips, it’s far too tempting to pick up our phone and answer a quick email or make a quick text. When we’re always connected to our work, we aren’t able to psychologically detach from our work—an extremely important recovery strategy that our body needs in order to replenish the energy we’ve spent that day and bring us back to equilibrium.”

The irony, she notes, is that technology should be beneficial because it gives us more flexibility in where, when, and how we work. “In what has been coined the autonomy paradox, instead of providing us with more flexibility and control, we actually are more likely to work because it follows us everywhere,” she says.

Clark says people like to think that technology helps them be more productive and effective, and in many ways it certainly does. She notes that it used to take researchers days to run a statistical analysis that our modern-day software can accomplish in seconds. “AI will continue to shorten the time it takes to complete many of our work tasks,” she says. “The problem is, instead of leveraging the increased efficiency and productivity we gain from technology to shorten our workdays, we just add more tasks to them.”

Many of the dangerous-to-health work patterns that emerged in the pandemic crisis have now been normalized. So, how can people rachet back to work habits that produce good results without endangering their professional reputations and perceived value?

“During the pandemic, we became accustomed to being in contact with our coworkers all times of the day,” Clark says. “Back then, this was often due to circumstances that forced that change in work patterns (e.g., parents who had to spend more time during the day to care for kids learning virtually, having to make up that time working in the evenings). However, the pandemic has exacerbated what scholars have called the cycle of responsiveness—a phenomenon where we become used to that immediate response to a work email, so we expect immediate responses from our coworkers and we also feel pressured to respond quickly ourselves.”

Once everyone learns to expect that increased accessibility, she says, it becomes difficult to take a step back, for fear of being left behind.

How can people ratchet back?

“It’s difficult to suggest a one-size-fits-all because that may depend on what kind of work environment you’re in,” Clark says. “If long work hours are what’s worshipped at your company, then it may be difficult to go against the norm, for fear of falling behind others and getting passed up for opportunities. Not that I’m advocating for lying or being deceptive, but it’s interesting to note that in at least one study, managers could not tell the difference between someone who worked long hours and someone who pretended to work long hours (e.g., being vague about reasons for leaving work). The performance was the same!”

If possible, Clark suggests, have an honest conversation with your boss if s/he seems open to these ideas. “If we have a supportive leader/team, it’s possible to have a healthier relationship with your work even within a hard-driving culture.”

How can leaders help reverse the always-available, work-first mentality that’s infecting may workplaces—and do so without putting organizational prosperity at risk?

“Leaders are in a great position to help reverse the always-available, work-first mentality,” Clark says. “For starters, they need to be good role models for their employees. Show your employees it’s okay to fully disconnect during vacation by not responding to emails (and also use that vacation time!). Leave work early for your kid’s soccer game and embrace this, instead of hiding it. Re-examine your team’s communication patterns and look for ways to break the cycle of responsiveness. For example, have you gotten in the habit of texting employees or emailing after hours? Instead, schedule that email so it arrives during work hours. Respect your employees’ boundaries. Reward working smarter, not longer.”

Workaholism, we should note, is different from work engagement.

“On the surface, it can be difficult to tell the difference between an engaged worker and a workaholic, as they both may work long hours,” Clark says. “There are two key distinguishing factors, however. First, look at where the energy is being spent. Engagement can be thought of as what’s achieved while working—I love my work, I get excited about it, and I thoroughly enjoy days when I get to focus on the things that I am particularly energized about. On the other hand, workaholism involves spending work energy outside of work—failing to shut work off, both mentally and physically, after you leave the workplace. Engaged workers have a much easier time turning work off. Second, focus on what’s motivating you to work. Is it more of an intrinsic motivation or love for work? Or is it because you feel an inner pressure to work—feelings that you need to work constantly to feel worthy or successful?”

The answers to these two questions, Clark believes, can help clarify whether you may be primarily driven to work by work engagement or workaholism. She says it’s important to note that you may actually be both an engaged worker (someone who loves the job and feels energized when working) and also have some workaholic tendencies. “Workaholism and work engagement shouldn’t be thought of as two extreme ends of a spectrum,” she says. “They’re actually two twin spectrums that can exist in parallel. We are complicated human beings, after all!”

What are some of the most common—and dangerous—myths about workaholism?

“Probably one of the most pervasive and dangerous myths about workaholism is that it makes a worker more productive,” Clark says. “There are several reasons this is not true. First, it’s 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 energy, both mental and physical, that we expended during the workday.”

Not only do workaholics not adequately recover from work, but they also operate in constant fight-or-flight mode, Clark says.

“There is a cumulative effect of strain on our bodies, so as we work more, we need even more recovery,” she says. “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 work day compared to the end of the workday. Do you notice a difference in how productive you are?”

Clark notes that economist John Pencavel has been studying this phenomenon for decades. His models show that after about 55 hours of work, productivity starts to decrease. “In fact,” Clark says, “applying Pencavel’s law of diminishing returns, someone who works 70 hours is no more productive than someone who puts in 55 hours.”

Clark says this myth continues to prevail because organizations misconstrue busyness as productivity. “The first one in and last one out is often the one rewarded and celebrated. Instead, companies should be rewarding output, not input,” she says.

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