Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Are you enabling an over-worker?

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Malissa Clark

You have made it your life’s work to study overwork and its effects on people and organizations. Why is this topic so important to you?

It’s something I’ve struggled with myself. For as long as I can remember, I have felt an inner pressure to always be busy doing something. When I was younger, that meant signing up for all kinds of clubs and sports while still getting straight As. It wasn’t due to pressure from my parents; it was just me. I’ve always felt like I had to prove myself and really struggled with being idle.

By the time I made it to grad school, I stumbled across the concept of workaholism and I thought, “Wow, I could actually study this phenomenon and understand it better.” That’s why I call my work “me-search” instead of research. I think a lot of psychology researchers gravitate to things that they personally struggle with or that they’ve seen loved ones deal with. So I started researching how external factors can exacerbate workaholism and how it impacts people beyond just the person who is overworking.

What do we know about the perils of this approach to life?

It’s not just about working long hours — although there is a tremendous amount of research on the perils of doing that. That gets compounded when you add in some other aspects of workaholism in terms of the cognitive attachment to work. Research shows that we need to take psychological breaks from stressful or demanding things. Taking regular breaks from work helps us recover some of our lost resources, including physical and mental energy, so that we can recover in a healthy way.

One aspect of workaholism is a literal inability to cognitively detach from work, which has negative impacts on future work engagement and resource depletion that can lead to physical and mental consequences. There’s a whole chapter in the book where I present the stories of individuals afflicted with this, most of whom are members of Workaholics Anonymous. Of course, it’s difficult to directly link health issues to workaholism, but there is definitely a pattern to these stories that is supported by study after study.

Working all the time, a lack of cognitive detachment from work, and feeling like you should always be working — all of these things have been shown to lead to negative consequences spanning from heart attacks to sleep issues to high blood pressure, and also to mental health impact in terms of increased strain and burnout. The research is actually overwhelming. There are not many positive outcomes of workaholism, if any — apart from a temporary boost to productivity. But it is not sustainable.

For readers who feel that someone on their team might be a workaholic, what are some of the signs to watch for?

It’s not always obvious. We read about work engagement a lot these days in the media, and how leaders can foster it. Just observing that someone is working long hours isn’t necessarily problematic. They might be doing that because they love their work and it could reflect high engagement.

By the way, you can also have both high work engagement and workaholic tendencies. I think of them as two separate levers in each employee that can either be low or high. For some, the gauge is high on both, but it can also be low on both, or high on one but not the other. But regardless of your level of work engagement, if you have workaholic tendencies, the outcome will be negative.

One telltale sign is over-committing — always taking on too much and over-promising amid unrealistic timelines. In the workaholic’s mind, they think, ‘No problem, I can get that done in two days,’ — but in fact, that means pulling two all-nighters in a row. That is not a healthy approach to work. A second sign is the person who goes home at a decent time but is constantly on their e-mail after hours. I myself have been guilty of this. Sometimes I tell myself, I’m just going to check my e-mail, that’s all — and I’ll have a TV show on in the background, so I feel like I’m doing something for myself at the same time.

A third sign is perfectionism. When most people are ready to stop working on a project, the workaholic wants to keep on going ad nauseam until it is absolutely perfect. But what in life is ever perfect? These people are never satisfied with ‘good enough’ and they fail to realize that no organization has unlimited time and resources. We all have to make decisions about when something is good enough, both at work and at life.

During the pandemic, with everyone working remotely, workdays actually got longer for most people. In the U.S., the average workday became three hours longer and in the UK, Canada, France and Spain, it was two hours longer. How did this happen?

That finding came out of a study Microsoft did, where they documented keystrokes on their employees’ computers. What they found is that there was a new “third wind” of productivity happening, mostly in the evening. Right about the time the kids went to bed, people would open up their laptops and start working again — which, during the pandemic, made sense. If you had young children while we were sheltering in place, during the workday there were lots of interruptions. Some parents were basically home-schooling their kids while working at the same time. So, it made sense to try to ‘make up’ that lost time in the evenings. The problem is, lots of people have adopted this new way of working and stuck with it. In many places there is still an expectation that people will respond to e-mails during the evening because it became such a habit during the pandemic.

We all need to relearn the boundaries between work and home. When we were all working remotely, it was too easy to let ourselves slip into working in the off-hours compared to when we were physically going into the office. For three-plus years, those boundaries became blurred.

You have found that workaholics are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviour that might harm their organization. Can you please explain?

There are many forms of counterproductive work behave iour. People tend to think about the really extreme kinds, like theft or damaging property. But in a broader sense, it’s about either directly or indirectly harming your organization or its people — and that can encompass a lot of different behaviors. For example, workaholics are difficult teammates sometimes, due to their propensity to over-promise and seek perfectionism, and that can be very hard on the people around them. For example, they might take back an assignment and tell their colleague, ‘I’m just going to do this myself.’ Working with a difficult boss or teammate definitely has implications.

You found that 66 per cent of Millennials self-identify as workaholics. Why are young people heading in this unhealthy direction?

That statistic surprised me, as well. We definitely need more research, because this goes against what we’ve been hearing for years about younger workers. We’ve been told, time and time again, that they don’t like to work as hard as older generations. This is just me hypothesizing, but I wonder if the blurred boundaries we all have now are exacerbated by smartphones, which are most heavily used by younger generations? I know my own kids are always on their phones and they do all of their schoolwork on their computers, which have chat apps on them. I think this is probably facilitating that finding, but we don’t have research to back it up yet.

The four-day work week is something we keep hearing about. Are you a proponent of it?

Definitely. In my work for the book, I got to know some of the key people involved with researching the four-day work week and I really dove into their research. I am 100 per cent a fan of adapting the work week in some way. It could be four days or it could be a different configuration that works for the individual. Say someone wants to be at work until 2pm every day, so they can pick up their kids from school; so, they work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., five days a week. The key is to reduce the total number of hours worked.

There is a lot of research looking at productivity and how many hours people are actually working during the workday — and it is not eight. Very few employees work eight productive hours every day. The research that the four-day work week team is doing is very methodologically strong. They have done pre-tests and post-tests and they have external researchers conducting the surveys and running the analyses. It is very rigorous. So, the fact that they’re seeing positive pre- and post-four-day work week changes consistently is very compelling.

For those who worry they might have a culture of workaholism at their organization, what are the first steps to dealing with it?

This is not an easy problem to tackle. First, I would say that some sort of culture assessment is critical to understand the norms and expectations and what type of behaviour is being rewarded (and not). Then, assess all of that and come up with a plan to address it. A company with a workaholic culture is not going to jump right in and adopt a four-day work week. But there are some pretty convincing examples of how researchers have helped companies make small changes — even in highly competitive consulting companies.

Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow wrote about this in her book Sleeping with Your Smartphone. She and her colleagues went into an organization with a very workaholic culture and made one small change: there would be one night each week — just one — where the consultants were not allowed to even look at their work or e-mail. They called this ‘predictable time off,’ and it took a lot of work to implement it. But the people in this organization realized the benefits very quickly. They were like, ‘Wow, having an entire evening where I’m not working at all is really fantastic!’

There were some naysayers, for sure. Some supervisors ultimately weren’t on board and kind of defected from the study. But that is to be expected. Figuring out where you can make a small change like this is a great first step — and it’s a step in the right direction.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of the Rotman Management magazine. Subscribe now for the latest thinking on leadership and innovation. 

Malissa Clark is associate head and an associate professor in the Industrial-Organizational Program in the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia and author of Never Not Working: Why the Always-On Culture Is Bad for Business — and How to Fix It (Harvard Business Review Press, 2024).