A recent study finds that workaholics who love their work — instead of workaholics who feels a compulsion to work — may be healthier than previous researchers have believed. Engaged workaholics do not apparently suffer the burnout or stress found in the more “classic” type of workaholic, they say.
By Kristen B. Frasch
By now, in this techno-driven world, probably every employer has heard or read about the need to encourage employees — especially those top-talented, hard-working ones — to sever their 24/7 connections to the office once in a while and regain some precious work/life balance.
In short, there’s a pervading belief that being a workaholic is bad for an employee’s physical and mental health, and not necessarily a boon for the company, either.
Now, a study out of Utrecht University in Utrecht, The Netherlands, offers a different view: Workaholism might not be such a bad thing as long as the worker loves what he or she is doing.
The study — Workaholic and Work Engaged Employees: Dead Ringers or Worlds Apart? by professors Ilona van Beek, Toon W. Taris and Wilmar B. Schaufeli — looked at 1,246 Dutch workers and measured such things as engagement, workaholism, motivation and burnout.
What the researchers found were three different types of hard workers:
* The classic workaholic, who has an inner compulsion to work hard, who self-identifies with its outcome — positive or negative — and whose self-esteem depends on it;
* The engaged non-workaholic, who is a loyal and reasonably hard worker; and
* The engaged workaholic, who is driven to keep working at intensely high energy levels out of a love of the job.
“Put differently,” they write, “[classic] workaholics are ‘pushed’ to their work, whereas engaged [workaholics] are ‘pulled’ to their work.”
That engagement serves to ward off the burnout that would normally appear much sooner in any other type of employees, they write, and “can act as a buffer against the adverse consequences of ‘pure,’ undiluted workaholism.”
While the researchers say more research is needed “to broaden our knowledge about this intriguing group of workers,” Patrick Kulesa, global research director in New York-based Towers Watson’s organizational survey practice, says there are already a few takeaways from the study for employers and HR leaders.
“When I read this, the idea I get is, if you’re prone to [be] someone who puts in a lot of hours or you’re in a job that requires a lot of hours,” he says, “it’s a lot better for you if you’re doing something that you enjoy.”
Thus, he says, “HR can and should be looking for engagement enhancers, be they better career opportunities, better communication of the mission of the leadership, better communication of the integral role the employee plays in that mission, etc.
“Companies can influence the engagement levels of their people,” he says, noting that the Dutch study as well as other research (including some of his own) has madethe connection between less stress and higher engagement, and between those factors and better business outcomes,
However, he says, workaholics — engaged or not — are “still not as well off as the engaged non-workaholic.”
He also notes that it’s unclear from the study what types of jobs the Dutch workers had or much about the quality of their lives.
Kulesa says there are red flags that HR professionals and supervisors can keep an eye out for that might indicate when an employee’s drive to work hard and put in lots of hours is verging on becoming compulsive and unhealthy.
“A lot of psychology suggests the more diversity you have to define yourself, the better your mental health,” he says.
Healthier employees have other roles in life, such as being an athlete, a spouse, a parent and so on. If an employee is putting in long hours but is “lacking in conversation about other interests, this could be a sign” of workaholism, he says.
Of course, employers also need to respect an employees’ privacy and take into account that some are simply quieter and less forthcoming about their other personal commitments, but there is, nevertheless, a place “for managers and supervisors to encourage a healthy balance of work talk and life talk,” Kulesa says.
Organizations should also endeavor to find new and different ways to nurture engagement, particularly for those especially hard workers, he says.