Is workaholism bad for your health? It depends how engaged you are in your job, finds SFU Beedie study

Aug 31, 2017


Is workaholism bad for your health? It depends how engaged you are in your job, finds SFU Beedie study

A new study investigating the phenomenon of ‘workaholism’, whose sufferers feel compulsively driven to work long hours and feel guilty when they are not working, has found that – as might be expected – it can have negative impacts on both mental and physical health.

What is more surprising, however, is that these health issues are correlated to workaholism only when a person has low engagement in their work; for those who feel highly engaged and enjoy their work, the study, published in Academy of Management Discoveries, found that having an obsessive work mentality doesn’t necessarily lead to negative health outcomes.

“Engagement is key,” says Lieke ten Brummelhuis, Assistant Professor of Management and Organization Studies at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, “There’s a big difference between workers whose propensity to overwork and inability to detach after hours stem from absorption in the challenges their job presents (in other words, engagement) and those for whom it reflects, say, anxiety about the job or obsessive ambition.”

The researchers, who also included Nancy P. Rothbard of the University of Pennsylvania and Benjamin Uhrich of the University of North Carolina Charlotte, analyzed questionnaire responses from 1,277 workers at a large international financial consulting firm, followed by medical screening results from 763 of that group.

The surveys provided data on the employees’ work hours, as well as responses indicating their level of workaholism, their engagement in their work, and their sense of health and wellbeing. The medical screenings looked for risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

The results showed that working long hours on its own was not an indicator that someone would suffer stress-related physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomach upset, or the risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

However, workaholism was significantly associated with stress-related physical complaints. But evidence that these would lead to heart disease or diabetes was found only for employees with below-average work engagement. Workaholics with above-average engagement showed no sign of being at risk for these serious health disorders. Indeed, their risk factors were lower than those of non-workaholics, suggesting a surprising health benefit of working compulsively at something one loves.

Prof. ten Brummelhuis warns, “Individuals beset by the psychosomatic complaints and other woes that workaholism can bring should ask themselves: ‘What is the reason I am working so hard?’ If it is out of love for the job, go for it. If not, health alarm bells need to sound, and changes need to be made.”