Workaholism: What HR needs to look out for to keep staff healthy

Many brush off workaholism as a simple case of staff working longer hours than they should. But it can be a disorder with real health implications. Leah Larkin reports.

The stereotype of overworked executives risking heart disease and alienation from their families is one often associated with US high-fliers. But figures from the TUC suggest that this affliction is increasingly a problem for workers in the UK.

More than one in eight of the workforce now works more than 48 hours each week, with as many as one in six employees in London putting in 48 hours plus a week, according to the TUC. And the number of employees working unpaid overtime increased by 103,000 in 2007, bringing the total to nearly five million.

Paul Sellers, working time policy adviser for the TUC, adds that one in five of those working overtime does not want to cut back their hours. Of those working more than 48 hours per week, one in four does not want to scale back.

Obsession

Economic pressure, advances in technology, downsizing the workforce – all contribute to workaholism. But far from being a catch-all term for staff who work long-hours, true workaholism is an obsessive-compulsive disorder which can lead to serious health problems.

In Japan, it’s called karoshi, death by overwork, and is estimated to cause 1,000 deaths per year, nearly 5% of the country’s stroke and heart attack deaths in employees under the age of 60.

“The workaholic is driven to make sure there’s work all the time,” explains Gayle Porter, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business, New Jersey. Most workaholics are either perfectionists, have a need for control, or have a combination of both traits, she adds.

Spotting the difference

It’s important for HR and line managers to notice the difference between someone who works hard or long hours, and a workaholic, says Bryan Robinson, a psychotherapist and author of the book, Chained to the Desk. Hard workers have some balance in their lives, he says: “They sit at their desks and think about skiing. The workaholic is on the ski slopes thinking about work.”

Gina Gardiner, a former school principal who also worked as a school inspector and adviser, is a classic case. She put in 16-hour days and was in constant pain with a back injury, believing work could help her escape emotional and physical pain. “I lost myself in working,” she says.

In 2007, she founded Recovering Workaholics to help those like herself.

Researchers who have studied workaholism agree that it can cause stress, high blood pressure, heart attacks and insomnia. Gardiner believes it can even weaken the immune system, causing a greater chance of infection, even cancer.

Mental health

What can impact a workaholic’s life at work, however, is the effect on mental health. “Workaholics feel the burden is all on them. Pressures become mental health as well as physical health issues,” says Porter.

Robinson adds that workaholics are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety. Workaholism can wreck havoc on relationships, with greater marital estrangement and a higher divorce rate among sufferers. “Children of workaholics have higher levels of depression, greater anxiety and less confidence,” he explains.

“Workaholism becomes a family disease. In the family everything centres on the workaholic.”

It’s not just a problem for the individual sufferer, either. Workaholics can also have a negative impact on their colleagues. Workaholics have a tendency to be in control of everything, explains Porter. “If they are controlling information and withholding it from others who need it, they interfere with productivity,” she says.

Workaholic managers may expect long hours from subordinates and force them to meet impossible standards, putting enormous stress on colleagues.

Whatever the workaholic’s role, their productivity suffers. The manual labourer gets tired after long hours, while the white-collar worker loses concentration ability, says Sellers. “It’s no surprise. It’s like running a car with the choke pulled out. It runs very fast for a while, then gradually comes to a halt.”

Yet in some work environments, workaholism seems to be encouraged. According to Porter, some companies feel that the harder and longer the employee works, the better it is for the organisation.

Sellers thinks today’s managers are “worried about a world recession. In this uncertain economic climate, they are reluctant to hire extra staff. Therefore employees must work longer hours.”

Rewarding

“There’s a lot of pressure to get more work out of individual employees,” says Porter. “This sets up a situation where the workaholic can indulge in dysfunctional patterns yet still be rewarded because he appears to be working harder than anyone else.”

Even if not encouraged to work longer, many do for many reasons. “People are concerned. They want promotions. There’s not enough clarity in what’s expected. They do things because they don’t want to be found wanting,” says Gardiner.

The proliferation of mobile technology hasn’t helped. Thanks to laptops, Black­Berries and mobile phones, workaholics can take work wherever they go. “Technology does allow us to do more. But instead of making life easier, one feels the need to do twice as much,” says Gardiner. “People are constantly interrupted in their down time. People want instant answers.”

Diane Fassel, author of Working Ourselves to Death and chief executive of employee satisfaction survey specialist Newmeasures, calls technology a mixed blessing. In creating the expectation of immediate feedback and turnout, it creates a great deal of stress, she says.

E-mail is the worst offender. Rita Rock, HR manager for the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies Semta, remembers one colleague had to manage 300 e-mails a day. “There’s a lot of pressure to respond immediately,” she says.

The organisation now plans to introduce a time management training module which will include managing e-mails, teaching employees to prioritise and delegate.

HR can help

In addition to coaching on e-mail management, there’s much more that HR can do to help workaholics, even those working excessive hours who may not be addicted to work. “HR managers need to find out what is going on in the organisation, to look at stress absences,” said Sellers.

Robinson has this advice: “The business itself can create an environment that supports the workaholic. Look out for those who are working too much. Use the company newsletter to talk about what a healthy worker is. Raise awareness.”

Chris Ridgewell, a consultant with flexible working consultancy WiseWork, suggests shifting targets to teams so people have to work together rather than focusing on individual goals. For example, think about establishing a buddy system.

HR should promote measurement by outcome, rather than hours spent working, says Porter. “More and more companies are pushing for outcome measures, actual measures of the results of someone’s work. By focusing on specific outcomes, you can see if someone who is working 12 hours per day is actually producing more or just working for the sake of working.”

Busy is not productive

Gardiner urges managers to analyse how people use their time. “Counsel employees to be effective and productive, not just busy. All too often people are busy being busy,” she says.

Fassel also recommends counselling, and encouraging those who work excessive hours to visit a doctor for a checkup on their physical health. Other measures she advocates include making sure employees have the skills, resources and materials to do their jobs, helping them with time management skills and allowing for flexible working hours.

What’s needed, believes Robinson, is more research on workaholism, and less of a tendency to brush it off as a personality trait. “This is not a cute term that people can toss around and be proud of. It’s a deadly disease that destroys families and kills people,” he concludes.

Spotting a workaholic

  • Preoccupation with work: Workaholics have a difficult time turning off work and often work from home at the end of the work day.
  • Discomfort in delegating: Workaholics need to be in control and feel only they can handle tasks they should be delegating.
  • Neglect other aspects of their lives: Workaholics often put work before their families and personal lives.
  • Merge other parts of their lives into work: Workaholics do not differentiate between leisure and work, as work is always on the brain.

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