Workforce Planning and Management

'Workaholism': Is More Than 50 Hours' Work a Week Damaging Your Health?

Workaholism may be one of the most overused terms in the modern workplace. Yet a recently published study, based on re-used data collected from 12,686 individuals, over 34 years does show those who work more than 50 hours a week have reduced physical and mental well-being. Kathryn Cave looks at what it all means and whether technology is the problem or the solution.

“Hi, I'm Joan, and I'm a workaholic” ran the headline on a ‘Workaholics Anonymous’ feature in USA Today a few years back. One workaholic, Erica, emails at 3 am, forgets to eat lunch until her BlackBerry alarm reminds her and spends evenings networking at dinners with clients. In her words: “The only relationship I have is really with my BlackBerry, I tend to be a people pleaser. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I have to deliver. I use work as an excuse."

This is a rather sad story, especially in light of Robert Owen’s nineteenth century crusade for shorter hours. Starting in 1810, he set his sights on a ten-hour day. Seven years later he had lifted the bar still higher coining the slogan: Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest. The “short-time movement”, born in response to the 10 - 16 hours six days a week demanded by the industrial revolution, set Britain on course for today’s official working hours.

Recently the benefits of working just eight hours a day seemed to be confirmed in doctoral research by Kansas State University. The study “looked at the association between workaholism and physical and mental well-being,” explained doctoral student Sarah Asebedo. “We found workaholics - defined by those working more than 50 hours per week - were more likely to have reduced physical well-being, measured by skipped meals. [We also] found that workaholism was associated with reduced mental well-being as measured by a self-reported depression score." Results were based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 a nationally representative sample of 12,686 young men and women interviewed on an annual basis from 1979 to 1994 and biennially ever since.

Despite the conviction of this study, ‘workaholism’ still has no clinical definition. Workaholics Anonymous has never gained the acceptance of AA. And although it is bandied about left right and centre ‘workaholism’ is popularly used as a bit of a joke phrase. As the Financial Times explained in a recent article the “term was [in fact] coined in 1968 by Wayne Oates, an American psychologist and religious educator, in an essay in which he confessed that his own addiction to work (he wrote 57 books) was similar to alcohol abuse.”

Yet the necessity of an acceptable ‘work-life balance’ is forever making headlines. There are numerous studies into how much unpaid overtime modern workers put in. The Chartered Management’s The Quality of Working Life 2012 survey of over 1,300 managers in 2007 and 2012, for example, painted a grim picture of UK workplaces.  Whilst this Summer, more than 80% of Americans (surveyed) said they were stressed about their jobs – mostly due to unreasonable workloads. And 61% were planning on working through their holiday – up 9% from 2012.

But is technology to blame for the ‘workaholic’ craze or is technology actually the antidote? Well, technology certainly may be to blame for globalisation and a 24/7 culture, and may facilitate longer working hours, but can it really be held account for people’s workloads or their inability to switch off the mobile? Last year when IDG Connect conducted research on work mobile use amongst 200 IT and Business decision makers in Europe, the findings showed that when we directly asked, ‘Do you spend too long on your work mobile?’ 70% responded ‘no’, 4% replied ‘yes’ and the rest didn’t answer.

So maybe technology is the solution after all? To confirm this, an article published in the Indian Express looked at how “workaholic Indians use technology to find work-life balance”. Based on research from Accenture titled ‘Defining Success,’ this showed that 91% of Indians admit that widespread technology use has enabled a more 'flexible' work schedule. The same is true of the Chinese (94%) and Indonesians (90%) and even the Saudis, who topped the list of ‘workaholics’. Dave Coplin had the same idea. In his book “Business Reimagined” he stressed as technology transforms the workplace it should become more of an enabler for flexibility.

You will always get a mix of working styles. But as Michael Sinclair, a consultant psychologist based in the City of London told the Financial Times  recently, when it comes to ‘workaholism’: “There is a difference between people devoting themselves to their career and enjoying it [and] compulsive working in order to block out feelings. It’s all about excess. We all possess some of the workaholic traits. Work is important to our identity. It’s important financially but also psychologically. It can be healthy – it gives us a role and a routine. It’s excess that’s the problem.”

My gut feeling is that many of the studies created on ‘workaholism’ are mostly created to get a reaction rather than discover anything genuine or new. Tonnes of people out there love a good whinge about their workloads. And for the most part there is an element of choice in how many hours people put in. On top of which, some will always stretch a few hours’ work over ten, whilst others cram ten hours’ worth into four. But then I guess productivity is just a whole different question…


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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