Workaholics vs Working Long Hours How They Separately Affect Your Health

After research on people’s work habits, mentalities, and hours, it is clear that there is a difference between simply working a lot and being a workaholic, and it comes down to mentality and coping mechanisms. Both, however, have different effects on your health.

Ask yourself a question: Do you work long hours, but can easily separate personal life from work, or does your work affect your thoughts constantly, long hours or not? Working long hours can differ from being a workaholic, or having a constant compulsion to work. And research shows one is much healthier than the other.

Two cases might help make this distinction clearer.

Hanna is a finance director at an international home care retailer, and she works long hours. She’s usually in the office from 9am until 5pm, but when her children go to sleep, she’s up working for another four hours. Sometimes she works on weekends. Yet, even though she works 60 to 65 hours per week, she told researchers Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P. Rothbard from the Harvard Business Review that she can “switch off” when she needs to. She still feels energetic every day, and when she is not working, she is not thinking about work.

Michael, the director of strategy for an American insurance company, does not work as much as Hanna—an average of 45 hours per week. However, even though he technically works less, he struggles to unwind from his job—he is constantly checking his email and worrying about work. A few months ago, his doctor noted he had high LDL cholesterol, which raises his risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The doctor prescribed him medicine.

Researchers wanted to dig into the assumption that working long hours is bad for our health. While this might have some truth, they wanted to find out if working long hours was negative or if an obsessive work mentality really caused health problems?

Here is what previous research shows and how it lines up with the recent study by the Harvard Business Review:

Researchers conducted a 2010 study at the Dutch subsidiary of an international financial consulting firm with over 3,500 employees. They asked employees to complete a survey, then sign up for a health screening conducted by medical staff. A total of 763 employees completed both.

The survey asked participants about workaholic tendencies and behaviors, and the health screening collected data related to health risks. Employees were asked if the following statements applied to them: “I feel guilty when I am not working on something” and “I put myself under pressure with self-imposed deadlines when I work”. They were asked about their work skills, motivations, and hours in an average week. They were also asked if they experience psychosomatic health issues like headaches and stomach problems.

The health screening measured various biomarkers (waist measurement, triglycerides, blood pressure, and cholesterol) which, when aggregated, provide information about a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes—or Risk for Metabolic Syndrome (RMS). The study also controlled for factors such as gender, age, education, and family history of cardiovascular disease.

The results revealed that work hours were not related to health issues, whereas workaholism was. Employees who worked long hours (over 40 hours a week), but who did not obsess about work, did not have increased levels of RMS and reported fewer health complaints than did employees who had workaholism tendencies.

Back to our friends Hanna and Michael. Hanna told researchers “I take my work very seriously while I’m working, but I forget about work the minute I decide I’ve done enough for the day.” Michael, on the other hand, has a compulsion to work hard and feels restless when he is not working. He ruminates about his job and often does not sleep well. When asked about his general stress levels, he reported that he “cannot remember the last time not feeling stressed or anxious about work.”

Why are workaholic tendencies linked to health issues, then? Well, the reasons make considerable sense. Workaholics cannot psychologically detach from work. Studies have shown that ongoing rumination goes along with stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and can cause chronic issues.

To cope with stress, the body activates a number of response systems (eg., cardiovascular, neuroendocrine). For example, if you’re facing a deadline, your stress hormones (e.g., cortisol), pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines (e.g. interleukin-6), and blood pressure will probably go up. After the deadline, though, these return to their original levels or “set points.” If a person is constantly pushing his or her stress levels to the max and allowing no time for recovery, his or her set points might re-set. Elevated blood pressure may become chronic, and cortisol levels stay high. Elevated set points for biological systems means higher risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even death.

Researchers concluded that working long hours is not as bad as obsessing over work. However, the limitations of the study included the fact that it only sampled workers who worked up to 65 hours per week. Therefore, researchers cannot make any conclusions about the outcomes of working more than 65 hours per week. For those who work 70 or more hours a week, researchers say it might be very difficult to detach from work, engage in recovery activities, or get enough sleep.

While being “engaged” with one’s job is a positive, and can have better health effects, research still showed that even engaged workaholics had reported more depressive feelings, sleep problems, various psycho-somatic health complaints, and a higher need for recovery than non-workaholics. For the study’s take on people who thoroughly like their jobs—and work a lot because of it—read the full Harvard Business School article.

The article also offers tips on how to begin addressing workaholism. The first step is always to recognize a problem: are you obsessing over work, and do you find it difficult to walk away from stress? After acknowledging an unhealthy relationship, you need to regain control over your work behavior. This can be done by setting clear rules for work hours, and learning healthier habits.

Focusing on the difference between working long hours and being a workaholic can not only make your work-life balance more manageable, but it can also have serious positive health outcomes. “Switching off” from work is a hard thing to do, but those who can are much healthier overall.

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