Conventional wisdom suggests workaholics must learn moderation and balance, reducing the number of hours they work, as well as the overall mental bandwidth work takes up. Otherwise, they risk potentially life-threatening, stress-induced medical conditions.
A recent study published by the Academy of Management, however, complicates this understanding. According to the study, workaholism as a condition is defined by a person's attitude toward work, not simply the amount of work a person does. Workaholism can be a significant health problem when an individual fixates on work for unhealthy reasons, such as anxiety about job security or ambition for its own sake.
"While the majority of workaholics work long hours ... compulsive work mentality poses a more serious health risk than the act of working long hours," the study's authors wrote.
However, survey respondents who felt truly engaged in their work, even those who identified themselves as workaholics, did not experience a heightened risk of heart disease or diabetes. In part, this was because of a strong overall problem-solving inclination, including the tendency to address everyday ailments before they turned into long-term illnesses.
"Engagement is the key," said Lieke L. ten Brummelhuis, a professor at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the study. "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 … and those for whom it reflects, say, anxiety about the job or obsessive ambition."
Though an apparent workaholic can be a fulfilled, dedicated employee, it's difficult for a manager or colleague to discern simply through observation. Workers of all stripes remain susceptible to job-induced physical and mental health conditions, and a work environment that supports employees and their personal needs can offset the development of such ailments.
With that in mind, here's how workers and employers can build a culture in which people can recognize, communicate and address their needs, both proactively and reactively.
1. Encourage employees to use their benefits.
Employees may be aware of your organization's policy on vacation days or remote work, but wonder if exercising them is truly acceptable or if it will be frowned upon. Often, without an explicit go-ahead, workers hesitate to use existing accommodations, such as flexible scheduling, telecommuting and accrued personal time.
As a manager, make a point of checking in regularly with your employees to see what they need and encourage them to address any health or personal concerns. However, be sure not to pry. Simply make those abstract policies seem more concrete. Workers should be sure to avoid singling out colleagues for their use of these policies.
2. Reward quality, and be clear about quantity.
When performance standards are unclear and feedback is ambiguous, employees may never be sure if what they're doing is sufficient for advancement or even job security. They may be able to accurately assess the quality of their own work but wonder if their colleagues and managers recognize their contributions. Many of these employees overcompensate, putting on a performance of "hard work" by staying purposeless long hours, inventing busywork and ultimately harming themselves without benefiting the organization.
To prevent these anxious theatrics, managers should give specific qualitative feedback on employee work, define measurable expectations for productivity and clarify which projects deserve the most attention. Additionally, be receptive to the possibility that some employees truly have unmanageable workloads, and foster open dialogue for voicing these concerns. Remain abreast of your team's responsibilities and be prepared to redistribute them when necessary.
3. Be responsive to your own needs.
While supportive management is crucial to promoting wellbeing in the workplace, employees must be active participants as well. Regardless of their roles or seniority, workers should treat everyday wellness practices like any other work task, including eating healthy lunches and getting some fresh air. Regular conversations about wellbeing should take place between colleagues and focus on sharing new ideas for best practices. Ideally, practicing wellbeing in the workplace should feel like a generative, ongoing, collaborative process, not just a matter of seeking permission to access a limited set of resources.