Workaholics: Job ‘Addicts’ Can Hurt Selves, Morale, Company

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It came, it went, and few Americans probably even noticed.

“It” was National Workaholics Day—yes, a holiday of sorts, memorialized every July 5.

Is it celebrated? Not really. It’s more of a sober reminder that workaholism, like any addiction, can jeopardize health, home lives and—eventually—productivity and a company’s bottom line.

Except that workaholism, unlike other addictions, is not only socially acceptable, it’s often admired, emulated and rewarded by higher pay and promotions. All of which sends a pretty mixed message to employees who persistently hear from HR departments about the importance of “work-/life balance” and unplugging from work on the weekends.

“If the employer really wants to support work/life balance, then a clear message must come from the top and permeate the culture,” said Carole Richter, principal of Denver-based HR Consulting LLC. “If someone is always working late, weekends and on vacation, then [the company] should hire more employees to distribute the workload. Communicate, not just to the workaholic but to the entire organization, that balance is important.”  

Workaholic or Hard Worker?

How do you spot the workaholic? The Workaholics Anonymous website has a 20-question self-assessment that includes these queries:

  •   Do you take work with you to bed, on weekends or on vacation?
  •   Is work the activity you do best and talk about the most?
  •   Do you think it’s OK to work long hours if you love what you do?
  •   Do you get impatient with people who have priorities outside of work?
  •   Do you do things energetically and competitively, including play?
  •   Have long hours hurt your relationships?
  •   Do you work or read during meals?
  •   Do you think about work while driving or falling asleep or when others are talking?, a website with information about holidays around the world, notes that the workaholic “works all of the time ... even during holidays. While just about everyone is enjoying [the holiday], the workaholic is off working on some project. He can't relax. It's not in his nature. He's addicted to work.”

A workaholic is someone who chooses to—rather than has to—work a lot and is always preoccupied by occupational duties or thinking about work, “typically at the expense of other aspects of his or her life,” said Karen Miller,  human resources and corporate culture expert for Seamless Corporate Accounts, an online food-ordering and billing service. “Workaholics tend to lose track of time on the job and feel compelled to keep working, regardless if the extra work is necessary or will result in a critical output.”

Nearly half (48 percent) of 1,200 professionals said they work late nights and weekends some or all of the time, according to a March 2014 survey by Seamless Corporate Accounts. The survey found that which city an employee lives in plays a large role in the amount of hours worked. Sixty-one percent of New Yorkers reported working more than 40 hours a week, compared with the national average of 53 percent. Workers in San Francisco and Boston tied for working the fewest hours, with only 51 percent of respondents working more than 40 hours per week. 

A September 2013 poll by ManpowerGroup asked employees if they worked longer hours than they did five years ago, and more than two-thirds responded “yes, a great deal.” Advances in technology have facilitated flexibility, Miller said, but also have added the expectation of additional work when away from the office—and accelerated the pace of work such that even working the same hours can feel more challenging. “This new flexibility often makes it difficult for professionals to step away and disconnect.”

Detrimental to Health and Home

Bryan Robinson, author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them (New York University Press, 2007), points out in his book that in workaholic marriages, couples tend to be emotionally distant from each other, and there are often thoughts of separation and divorce.

The divorce rate is twice the national average when one person in the relationship is a workaholic, according to a 1999 study by Robinson, a retired professor from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

An August 2013 Kansas State University study found that workaholics—defined as those who worked more than 50 hours a week—were more likely to skip meals, to experience reduced physical and mental well-being, and to report depression more often than those who worked fewer hours a week.

“It is a risk to place so much responsibility on these individuals,” Richter said. “[Companies] are at risk of losing intellectual property and having their operations affected if the person leaves, falls ill or has other demands that make them reprioritize their attention. And while workaholics can keep up a demanding pace for a very long time, many become disillusioned by a lack of appreciation from employers or, over time, how the work affects their ability to have a healthy personal life.”

No More Mixed Messages

So what’s HR to do? Stop rewarding people for working too hard? Make an example of the executive who works long hours and sends e-mails on weekends?

That’s not likely to happen, Miller acknowledged, noting that workaholics are not only frequently rewarded with higher pay and promotions, they can also make those around them feel guilty, underachieving or competitive, which can spread the addiction through a workplace, leaving not just one but many employees fatigued, stressed and eventually disengaged.

“When workaholics are putting in extra hours, they can make co-workers feel as if they, too, must put in long hours in order to be successful,” Miller said. “This is particularly true when the workaholic is a manager.”

Employers should be observant of those who may be on the road to burnout. If long hours are ongoing, examine other employees’ workloads and shift responsibilities to provide better support to those who are stretched especially thin.

“Anytime work is affecting one’s health or personal life, we should be working with the employee and managers to find out why,” Richter said. “HR needs to determine if the problem is situational or systemic. I think those that have experienced the risks of placing too many demands on too few people really want to begin the conversation within their organizations.”

Miller said HR departments can also provide time-management training and encourage supervisors to limit nonessential meetings and administrative tasks.

“The most effective way to combat the challenges related to overworked employees is to help employees work more efficiently during regular hours,” she said.

When Long Hours Can’t Be Helped

There will be projects and deadlines that require longer-than-normal hours and, in those cases, Miller said, the company should demonstrate that it values the extra work as “above and beyond”—not a routine part of the job. Additional ways to lessen the burden on employees during times of increased work:  

  •          Leave the lights on. Ensure that during extended hours, the office remains vibrant, comfortable and engaging. Don’t forget about heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting systems that might be on energy-saving modes after-hours. Make sure the systems don’t shut down on employees putting in extra time.
  •          Consider employee safety. Keep parking lots well-lit, have security guards onsite after-hours and, if your office is in a city, consider reimbursing workers for after-hours taxis to avoid late-night travel on foot or by public transportation. 
  •          Keep employees fed. Fifty-seven percent of the Seamless Corporate Accounts survey respondents said food-based perks would make them feel more valued and appreciated. Consider reimbursing dinner when employees work late or provide healthy snacks and lunch.
  •          Remove the stress of personal chores. Long hours mean little time to meet needs at home. Consider long-term ways to help employees meet work and life demands, such as flextime, a mandatory vacation policy or a personal concierge service.

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