It’s no secret that success requires hard work, yet working to excess is typically considered unhealthy. We imagine so-called “workaholics” as office prisoners, compulsively checking email long after they’ve stepped away from their desks, grinding themselves into an early grave. But is that really the case?
It’s more complicated than that, according to research by Management Professor Nancy Rothbard. In the paper “Beyond Nine to Five: Is Working to Excess Bad for Health?,” Rothbard and her team—Lieke ten Brummelhuis, professor of management and organization studies at Simon Fraser University, and Benjamin Uhrich, a consultant in learning and organizational development at the Carolinas HealthCare System—sought to determine the effects of working long hours and compulsive work mentality on an employee’s risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that can lead to cardiovascular disease.
Their study of 763 employees at an international financial consulting firm found that simply working long hours doesn’t result in adverse health effects. However, coupling those long hours with a compulsive work mindset and an inability to detach from the daily grind increases the risk of developing metabolic syndrome significantly.
But not all workaholics are created equal. Within the group of true workaholics—employees characterized by a constant obsession with and failure to psychologically separate from work—a distinction emerged in the health outcomes of those who enjoyed their jobs and those who felt unfulfilled. While workaholics who reported a lack of engagement with their work displayed signs of increasingly poor health, those who felt engaged with and passionate about their jobs showed no more risk of developing metabolic syndrome than non-workaholics, suggesting that working compulsively at something you love can actually add to your well-being.
“We just assumed that all workaholics were going to have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome,” says Rothbard. “It turns out that only some of them do: the ones who don’t have that passion and positive energy around their jobs.”
When it comes to objective health outcomes, engagement is key. Workaholics who don’t like their jobs but work endlessly at them anyway should realize they may be putting their long-term health at risk. “Make sure you do build in the time for recovery, and that you maintain some balance and draw on the sources of support you have,” Rothbard advises. On the other hand, the study suggests that job satisfaction acts as a buffer against the harmful effects of workaholism. So take comfort in knowing that bustling from meeting to meeting and burning the midnight oil isn’t ruining your health—it may be what keeps you going.
Published as “Can Workaholism Be Healthy?’” in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.