Science is definitive: being a workaholic doesn't help you get ahead in your career but does increase the risk of burnout and serious health problems. But while everyone agrees that workaholism is bad, not everyone agrees what exactly counts as workaholism.

If you work long hours does that automatically make you a workaholic? Do you need to also obsess about work when you're not physically working? Does it matter whether you're passionate about your work or not?

A new study tries to tease out the answers to these questions, and it's good news for those dedicated professionals who are tired of having their passion for their work mis-characterized as unhealthy workaholism. Science has found they might just be on to something when they shoot back at eye-rolling loved ones that it doesn't count as workaholism if you sincerely love your job.

The 3 components of toxic workaholism

The study, from a team including researchers out of Wharton and a Canadian university and a healthcare expert, is titled "Beyond Nine to Five: Is Working to Excess Bad for Health?" It's based on a survey of 763 employees at a consultancy who shared their work hours, information on their attitude towards work, and health records.

When the research team cross-referenced these three types of data, they found, "not all people who work long hours are workaholics, and not all workaholics work long hours," says the Knowledge@Wharton write-up of the findings.

The chances of suffering serious health consequences such as weight gain and unhealthy cholesterol levels don't go up if you simply work long hours. Instead, to raise your probability of suffering these problems, you need to both work an insane schedule and struggle to switch off after you get home.

But even meeting these two criteria wasn't enough to increase someone's chances of suffering scary health problems. In fact, you could both put in crazy hours and obsess endlessly about work and still not put your health at risk if you had one additional protective factor. What was it?

Passion for your work.

"Workaholics who reported being highly engaged and fulfilled in their jobs stayed healthy. It didn't matter that they put in long hours, drove themselves to work very hard, and thought about their job all the time. In fact, they showed no more risk of developing metabolic syndrome [high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol and excess waistline fat] than the average non-workaholic employee," reports Knowledge@Wharton.

That means, to really be in danger of workaholism harming your health you need to say yes to all three of these questions:

  • Do you work long hours?

  • Do you struggle to stop thinking about work when you're away from the office?

  • Do you find your work unfulfilling? Is it just a means to a paycheck?  

So next time your family starts nagging you that you're literally killing yourself with work, take a moment to work through this mental checklist. If you answer yes to all these questions then you're probably in trouble and you should take your alarmed loved ones' concerns seriously.

But if you can honestly report that you genuinely love your work, you're probably in the clear healthwise, no matter how many hours you devote to your job. (You may still want to take your annoyed spouse out to dinner though - just because you're not literally killing yourself doesn't mean you're not neglecting your loved ones.) 

Published on: Dec 6, 2017
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