When we think of workaholics, we conjure up images of unshaven, bloodshot-eyed entrepreneurs working 80-hour weeks, eating junk food lunches at their desk (in the middle of a conference call), and getting up at 4 a.m. for another stress-filled day.

Yet according to Nancy Rothbard, professor of management at Wharton, there's a clear distinction between workaholism and working long hours. As a result, not all self-labeled "workaholics" putting in long hours are on the fast track to a heart attack by age 50.

In her coauthored Harvard Business Review article, "How Being a Workaholic Differs from Working Long Hours -- and Why That Matters for Your Health," Rothbard and her team found that work hours were not related to any health issues, while workaholism was. Allow me to explain.

The research reveals which type of workaholic is at risk.

This  2010 study involved over 3,500 employees at the Dutch subsidiary of an international financial consulting firm. The survey asked employees questions about their workaholic tendencies, like:

  • "I feel guilty when I am not working on something." 
  • "I put myself under pressure with self-imposed deadlines when I work"

These and other similar questions are the types that a workaholic answered "strongly agree to."

The survey also asked about employees' work skills, work motivation, and their work hours in an average week. In addition, employees were given health screenings as a way to gauge whether they were at risk for developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes -- what Rothbard referred to as "Risk for Metabolic Syndrome (RMS)."

The study found that, regardless of whether or not employees put in long hours, some were found to have workaholic tendencies, others not.

Rothbard says the workaholic-types "reported more health complaints and had increased risk for metabolic syndrome; they also reported a higher need for recovery, more sleep problems, more cynicism, more emotional exhaustion, and more depressive feelings than employees who merely worked long hours but did not have workaholic tendencies."

Reversing workaholism: stop thinking about work when you're not working

It's quite normal sometimes to ruminate about our work off-hours. It may be due to a stressful phase we're going through as we process and problem solve. Or, we think about work a lot because we may enjoy it so much. Neither scenario is going to drain us.

The clear difference between the person who works long hours versus the workaholic has to do with what goes on between the ears. People that work long hours without delving into workaholism are able to "turn it off" and not ruminate on work when they get home. 

Rothbard says that if you work long hours and you're not a workaholic, you seem to have a buffer against negative health consequences. It's all in your attitude toward work. Rothbard says it's "whether we dwell on it, whether we feel guilty when we're not working" that separates the two.  

Some of the obsessive work attitudes in a workaholic's mind can be blamed on the work environment or the organizations that foster that type of work culture -- the expectation that employees should always "be on."  

5 steps for workaholics who can't "turn it off"

If you're the type of at-risk workaholic as described in this study, and you can't stop the stream of work thoughts rushing through your head incessantly on evenings or weekends, try these coping hacks:

1. Don't let your identity be defined by your work. 

Our corporate culture puts way too much emphasis on career success, climbing the corporate ladder, and achieving, achieving, achieving! It's easy for us to define ourselves by what we do, and immerse ourselves in it to an unhealthy level. If you live to work, instead of work to live, your priorities are misplaced. If work was taken away forever, what would be your new identity?

2. Have a philosophy of rest. 

Our overachieving nature to do more and be more makes us feel guilty when we try to take a day off, go on vacation, or just cut back a little. Choosing a day of rest is often uncomfortable but it is exactly what we need: We can spend more time with family, take up a new hobby, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. In Old Testament literature, the Jewish Sabbath was a great antidote to the causes of overwork. 

3. Work smarter, not harder.

 Make simple adjustments to your workload, like picking the three most essential and reasonable tasks, then focusing intensely on completing them as your goals for a normal 8-hour day. The rest? If they don't require your expertise -- delegate, delegate, delegate! 

4. Shut off all your devices at home.

In this 24/7 digital world, take up this challenge: As soon as you walk in the door and kiss your spouse and kids, shut off all electronic devices. This will ensure that you are giving the proper attention to the people that live under the same roof, who want your attention! Make them a priority by being available to them, and unavailable to your daytime "family."

5. Don't neglect self-care.

To fight off your obsession with work may take some time. Your starting point? Common sense: Give your body the proper sleep it needs to recover, don't skip any meals, avoid junk food, and exercise three times per week (or more). Your body needs fuel to function at a high level and give you the physical and mental stamina to focus.

6. Actively engage in an activity.

Rothbard says in the HBR piece, "If you're leaving a lot of blank space, the obsessive thoughts about work are going to be filling up that space." Think activities like meeting friends at a bar, taking a family outing to the great outdoors, watching a movie that you'll like, or engaging in an old hobby. Filling up that space with a enjoyable activity provides an opportunity for recovery.

7. Mentally detach from work.

Finally, if you just can't separate yourself from your work because you are, after all, a workaholic, do what the people that work long hours, without a high risk for metabolic syndrome, do: Engage your work in a healthy, productive way, without being obsessed about it. When close of business nears, start mentally shifting to a natural rhythm of leaving the office when most people do, and start focusing on your home and personal life. Hanna, a participant interviewed by Rothbard who works long hours, told her: "I take my work very seriously while I'm working, but I forget about work the minute I decide I've done enough for the day." Because she's not mentally pre-occupied with work, when Hanna finishes work for the night, "she feels fulfilled and falls asleep easily. In the morning, she feels refreshed for a new workday," states Rothbard.