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