Workaholism: hard but not smart

2013

They might put in excessive hours, but for many workaholics their efforts are in vain. Because according to a new Italian study, high mental and physical strain means that while workaholics work hard, they still have poor job performance.

Dr Alexander Falco and colleagues from the University of Padova in Italy analyzed survey responses from a sample of more than 300 private-sector workers. Workaholism is defined as working excessively and working compulsively. But according to their findings, workaholics may work hard, but they don't work smart.

The study, published in the November Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), followed workers displaying "moderate" levels of workaholism. They also showed evidence of high levels of job strain, with physical and mental symptoms such as digestive, memory and sleep problems.

This high strain was associated with worse job performance, the study found. And even after accounting for strain, there was no direct link between workaholism and job performance.

There was a similar indirect effect on absenteeism, with high job strain leading to increased absences. But this was partly offset by a negative direct effect, perhaps reflecting workaholics' reluctance to miss any work time, even when they are ill. Since this direct effect was stronger, the study found that workaholics tended to have fewer absences, on balance.

Workaholism rates from eight to 25 per cent, the study says, But a 2007 survey by the Centre for Work-Life Policy, a New York-based nonprofit group, found that almost half (45 per cent) of executives were "extreme" workers, putting in more than 60 hours a week, with significant negative effects on their health as well as personal and work life.

Understanding how workaholism affects work-related outcomes could help lead to new ways of mitigating a problem that's costly for employers, the Italian researchers said. Assuming you have the time and / or inclination to find out whether you are a potential workaholic, the California-based Workaholics Anonymous has this 20-question survey to help you find out.

"Our study highlights the central role of psycho-physic strain in the relationship between workaholism and job performance," Dr Falco and coauthors write.

Because workaholics devote so much time to their work, they lack adequate recovery time, which leads to "breakdown at an emotive or cognitive level," and ultimately to strain-related symptoms.

Finally, if you still adhere to the old cliché that "hard work never hurt anybody", you might want to consider a study of more than 7,000 people by researchers from University College London which found that working more than 11 hours a day increases the risk of heart disease by 67 per cent. Similarly, the Fukuoka Heart Study Group in Japan, has found that working over 60 hours a week and missing out on sleep can as much as double the chances of a heart attack for the 40+ age group.

So the next time you're tempted to put in a marathon stint at the office, remember: it's not big, it's not clever and it's not even productive.