A lead­ing Wharton pro­fes­sor de­scribes two types of worka­holics and the blur­ring of bound­aries in mod­ern life.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

Nancy Roth­bard

The bound­aries be­tween work life and fam­ily life are blur­ring for many peo­ple. Are we work­ing more than ever—or does it just feel like it?

I do think many peo­ple are work­ing more than ever be­cause with to­day’s tools, they can. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy has made it pos­si­ble to work from any­where, any­time. But even for those of us who are not ac­tu­ally work­ing more, it feels like we are. That’s be­cause work can just ‘pop up’ at any time of the day or night on our smart­phones. This blur­ring of bound­aries is great in some ways. For in­stance, it means that you can go to your kid’s soc­cer game and still be reach­able if some­thing arises at the of­fice. But it also makes us more pre­oc­cu­pied with our work at times when, his­tor­i­cally, we have been able to com­pletely ‘shut it off’—and there is ev­i­dence that this makes it more dif­fi­cult for us to re­cover. It is im­por­tant to un­der­stand the health con­se­quences of long work weeks.

You have iden­ti­fied two dis­tinct types of worka­holics. Please de­scribe them.

Worka­holism is a men­tal­ity — the com­pul­sive in­ner drive to work hard. These in­di­vid­u­als have a con­tin­u­ous in­flux of work de­mands be­cause they of­ten seek high-pres­sure

jobs and cre­ate ad­di­tional work for them­selves. They stay psy­cho­log­i­cally at­tached to work and take lit­tle time for re­cov­ery. As a re­sult, they are likely to ex­pe­ri­ence de­bil­i­tat­ing stress.

My col­leagues and I set out to study the ef­fects of worka­holism in gen­eral; but we soon re­al­ized that there are two dis­tinct types of worka­holics. The first is ‘en­gaged worka­holics’ — self-de­scribed worka­holics who love their work, are com­pletely en­gaged with it and get pos­i­tive en­ergy from it. These peo­ple con­nect with their work in a way that is mean­ing­ful and in­spir­ing to them. The sec­ond group is ‘un­en­gaged worka­holics’. These in­di­vid­u­als feel guilty when they’re not work­ing, which com­pels them to work a lot; but un­like en­gaged worka­holics, they do not love their work. They derive very lit­tle joy, pur­pose or mean­ing from it.

What are some of the phys­i­cal and men­tal health ef­fects of be­ing a worka­holic?

In our re­search we fo­cused on the neg­a­tive health ef­fects caused by Meta­bolic Syn­drome, which cov­ers a clus­ter of con­di­tions — in­creased blood pres­sure, high blood sugar and ab­nor­mal choles­terol or triglyc­eride lev­els — that tend to oc­cur to­gether, in­creas­ing the risk of heart dis­ease, stroke and di­a­betes. We found two key dif­fer­ences in the health out­comes of en­gaged ver­sus un­en­gaged worka­holics. First, even though worka­holism was re­lated to more self-re­ported psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal health com­plaints re­gard­less of the level of en­gage­ment, health com­plaints were only as­so­ci­ated with ac­tual neg­a­tive health out­comes when work en­gage­ment was low.

I want to be clear that there are peo­ple out there who work long hours but are not worka­holics — and they do not get any of the neg­a­tive health ef­fects that we see for worka­holics. That was one of our key find­ings: it’s the in­di­vid­ual’s at­ti­tude to­wards work that pre­dicts neg­a­tive health out­comes, rather than sim­ply the be­hav­iour of work­ing long hours.

Our sec­ond key find­ing was that there is a ‘buffer­ing ef­fect’ for peo­ple who are en­gaged worka­holics. These folks didn’t face the neg­a­tive health out­comes ei­ther. En­gaged worka­holics — and en­gaged em­ploy­ees in gen­eral — re­ported more per­sonal re­sources like bet­ter time man­age­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. They were in­trin­si­cally mo­ti­vated in their jobs. The non-en­gaged worka­holics fared worse on all of those fac­tors.

When we are in groups with peo­ple who are sim­i­lar to us, we don’t de­lib­er­ate as much on de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

In your most re­cent pa­per, you show that friend­ships in the work­place are not al­ways a good thing. Can you high­light the pros and cons for us?

I did that re­search with my doc­toral stu­dent, Ju­lianna Pil­limer, and a cou­ple of things stood out to us. I want to em­pha­size that we’re not say­ing friend­ships at work are a bad thing, per se. There are many pos­i­tive ben­e­fits that derive from hav­ing friends at the of­fice. But friend­ship at work is com­pli­cated, for a cou­ple of rea­sons.

Friend­ship re­la­tion­ships are vol­un­tary, and they en­tail cer­tain norms of need-based ex­change. So, if you need some­thing from me, as a friend, I’m there for you. This el­e­ment of friend­ships can be in ten­sion with or­ga­ni­za­tions, where we have for­mal roles and du­ties that need to be per­formed. At the in­di­vid­ual level, if you’re try­ing to deal with a friend in need, you can be dis­tracted from your work. In­ter­role con­flict can also arise be­tween the in­for­mal and for­mal roles that we have; for in­stance, there can be ten­sion in my role as a friend vs. my duty as your boss.

Fur­ther­more, a lot of re­search shows that when we are in groups with peo­ple who are sim­i­lar to us — which is of­ten the case with friends — we don’t de­lib­er­ate as much on group de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Maybe we don’t pre­pare as much as we should for a meet­ing be­cause we think it’s go­ing to be easy and we’ll get through it. And in groups, we might not be will­ing to chal­lenge our friends — even when we should.

At the or­ga­ni­za­tional level, friend­ships can lead to per­cep­tions of ‘cliques’, which can inhibit knowl­edge shar­ing and make peo­ple con­cerned about pro­ce­dural jus­tice in an or­ga­ni­za­tion. If I’ve got a re­ally close friend­ship with some­one se­nior in the or­ga­ni­za­tion and peo­ple see that, they might make the in­fer­ence that I’m go­ing to be favoured by my friend. So­cial me­dia is only am­pli­fy­ing some of these ten­sions.

For read­ers who are sens­ing they might be non-en­gaged worka­holics, what is your ad­vice?

One thing we found is that en­gaged worka­holics have more so­cial sup­port than non-en­gaged worka­holics, and it comes from two sources: fam­ily and co-workers. If you feel like you’re not en­gaged, one thing that is re­ally im­por­tant to do is to seek out more sup­port, both at work and at home. Also, try to re­think what your job looks like and why you are not en­gaged in it. Is it the wrong job for you? Is the work it­self

just bor­ing? Is there a way to make it more in­ter­est­ing?

My col­leagues Jane Dut­ton at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, Amy Wrzes­niewski at Yale and oth­ers have pi­o­neered the con­cept of ‘job craft­ing’. Job crafters can al­ter the bound­aries of their jobs by tak­ing on more or fewer tasks, ex­pand­ing or di­min­ish­ing the scope of tasks or chang­ing how they per­form tasks. I think this con­cept can be a re­ally pow­er­ful re­source in terms of tak­ing charge of what your job looks like and find­ing ways to be­come more en­gaged in it.

On a per­sonal note, you were re­cently named as the first woman to lead the Man­age­ment Depart­ment in the Wharton School’s his­tory. What are your key goals?

When you are the first of your type in any role, it’s re­ally im­por­tant that oth­ers see you as do­ing the job well and giv­ing it your all. That is re­ally im­por­tant to me. My sec­ond goal is around is­sues of di­ver­sity. I want to make sure that we are meet­ing our goals in terms of both gen­der di­ver­sity and un­der­rep­re­sented mi­nori­ties. I want to en­sure that this is a great place to work for ev­ery­body. Nancy Roth­bard is the David Pot­truck Pro­fes­sor, Pro­fes­sor of Man­age­ment and Chair of the Man­age­ment Depart­ment at the Wharton School, Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. Her pa­per, “Be­yond Nine to Five: Is Work­ing to Ex­cess Bad for Health?”, co-writ­ten with Lieke ten Brum­mel­huis and Ben­jamin Uhrich, was pub­lished in Academy of Man­age­ment Dis­cov­er­ies.


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