Originally written for Lawtalk Magazine, published 6 October 2018

Working long hours is the norm in most organisations and we all know its not great for your health. However, a recent study in the Harvard Business Review by Nancy Rothbard, Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania and Leike te Brummehuis Assistant Professor of Management at Simon Fraser University, outlined the difference between working long hours and being a workaholic.

The term ‘workaholic’ was coined in 1971 and defined as an uncontrollable need to work incessantly. It’s characterised by an inner compulsive drive to work hard, constant thoughts about work, and feelings of guilt and restlessness when not working. Workaholism is often linked with working long hours but they are separate – it’s possible to work long hours without being obsessed and it’s possible to be obsessed and work less hours.

It turns out that while neither is good for your health, a workaholic mindset is much worse for you than working long hours. The distinction between someone who works long hours without being a workaholic, according to Rothbard and Brummehuis, comes down to mindset. You’re not a workaholic if you can ‘turn off’ and separate yourself from work when your workday is done. If you’re inclined to dwell or obsess on your work or feel guilty when you’re not working you’re more likely to be addicted to working.  However, if you simply work long hours without being a workaholic – that is, you can ‘switch off’ leave work behind and focus on other areas of your life, you may have a buffer against negative health consequences.

Rothbard and Brummehuis found that long work hours were not related to any health issues but that a workaholic attitude was. They looked at biomarkers like waist measurements, triglycerides, blood pressure and cholesterol as an indicator of risk for metabolic syndrome (that is, risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes) and found that workaholics, whether they worked long hours or not, reported more health complaints, sleep problems, cynicism, emotional exhaustion and feelings of depression and a higher risk for metabolic syndrome than their non-workaholic peers.

It was also found that if you love your work and you’re a workaholic, your health risks, while they still exist, will be slightly lower than those that are a workaholic but not engaged in their work.

Its easy to see why those that can’t switch off are likely to have higher health risks. Our bodies are designed to deal with stress in short bursts – releasing stress hormones and prompting physical reactions when necessary then returning to normal set points once the stress is over. When you’re constantly fixated with work and can’t switch off, your stress response is continually ‘on’ which can re-set your body to a new homeostasis point where things like elevated blood pressure and cortisol levels become the norm, bringing with them the associated health risks.

In 2012, the University of Bergen developed the Bergen Work Addiction Scale outlining 7 basic criteria to identify work addiction or workaholism, where the following were scored on a scale of 1 (Never) to 5 (Always):

  • You think of how you can free up more time to work
  • You spend much more time working than initially intended
  • You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and depression
  • You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them
  • You become stressed if you’re prohibited from working
  • You deprioritise hobbies, leisure activities and exercise because of work
  • You work so much that it negatively influences your health

A score of 4 or 5 on at least 4 of these criteria indicates a work addiction.

While the definition of workaholism here is slightly different to that in the Harvard study, it may provide a more objective measure to determine your level of work addiction and determine if steps need to be taken to address it.

It’s fair to say that some of the obsessive nature of a workaholic could be blamed on the culture or environment of an organisation that expects its employees to constantly be ‘on’ or available. This might not be easily addressed by employees individually without buy in at a managerial level and a cultural overhaul, but there are still steps an individual can take to disentangle themselves from a workaholic mindset and improve their health.

Don’t be defined by your work

It’s easy to be caught up in a culture that has high expectations and become obsessed. Every achievement, win or recognition leads to a dopamine hit and that addictive reward loop in your brain starts to dominate. Before you know it, you’re striving for that next dopamine hit, then the next one. But you are more than the job you have, so reflect on your complexity. What are your other roles or identities in life and what they mean to you. Without your work, who are you?

Engage in non-work activities

Find activities you enjoy and be fully present when you’re engaging in them to allow that escape from thoughts of work. If you have workaholic tendencies and chunks of time available to you with no plans, chances are habits will take over and you’ll start thinking about work again, so plan your leisure time and fill it with fun activities – meeting up with friends, family time, team sports, hobbies, a good book or a movie. Whatever it is, make sure its something you enjoy doing so you don’t get distracted by thoughts of work.

Digital detox in the evenings and weekends

Being accessible 24/7 is not healthy. While you may not be able to simply work 8-5 each day and leave it at that, perhaps it’s possible to negotiate a time that works for you and your management as to when it’s acceptable to switch off electronic devices at the end of each day or week and leave emails, calls and texts to the next working day.

Understandably, urgent things can come up from time to time that absolutely cannot wait but that should be the exception and not the norm. Unless someone may die from your inaction overnight, it can probably wait until the morning.

Work smart

Prioritise your tasks, aim to complete the most important stuff in your regular work day and delegate where you can. Ensure you’re well rested so you can focus completely and be efficient in the main part of your day.

If possible, have an email system. Set aside several times each day to devote to checking and replying to emails and messages and stick to it (that is, don’t look at your emails at other times) so you minimise distractions. A study by Carleton University in Canada in 2017 found that employees spend one third of their time in the office and half the time they are working from home reading and answering emails. One third of that time, the emails are neither urgent nor important.

Live healthy

The basics of healthy living always apply. Nutritious food, adequate sleep, and exercise will help you feel and work better, and provide some balance to your life. If you find it hard to focus at work, and consequently you work longer because tasks take longer, and you obsess about the work you’re not getting done, start by looking at your self-care habits.

Take a break

We all feel better with a holiday and we all have annual leave to take advantage of. A few weeks off is great, but sometimes a day can make all the difference. Time away from your normal routine can have you coming back more productive and focused, perhaps with a new perspective on your work habits, feeling less stressed and better equipped to manage your work.

If your health is important to you, it’s worth finding that balance between work and life.