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Workaholics are prized by organizations. They seem to be more productive, so their addiction – unlike alcoholism – is viewed positively, even as a model for others to follow. Managers, who do the judging on employee performance, tend to be workaholics, so they have a bias to view workaholism as a shining trait.

But Malissa Clark, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, argues that’s dangerous and foolish. Workaholism is unhealthy – for the individual, their family and friends, and ultimately the organization. Costs to the organization include higher turnover and absenteeism. Workaholism, contrary to assumptions, is not related to higher performance. And in an era when the youngest recruits to companies have never known a world without constant connection and on-demand service – two hallmarks of today’s hustle culture – we need to fight against workaholism.

“Just as we can’t solve employee burnout by focusing only on self-care, we can’t address the negative effects of workaholism without first addressing the places demanding an always available, work-first talent pool,” she writes in Never Not Working.

Workaholism, she says, is more than the number of hours you put in. It’s the feeling in the pit of your stomach that you can’t rest – that you ought to be working all the time. It’s the guilt and anxiety that arises when you aren’t working. It’s the fact that when not working you are wondering about emails that you need to send or how to improve projects you’re working on. “It’s living with the fear of losing something – status, money, the job itself – if you’re not working,” she notes.

Even if you’re not a workaholic, she adds, you are affected by them. Perhaps you are doing more work around the house because a spouse is a workaholic. Workaholics get promoted at the office, becoming models of proper behaviour, and standards for teams can be set by a co-worker who rarely shuts down.

Managers need to be wary of their belief that workaholics are super-productive. Her look at the various studies on this issue found no evidence workaholism equates with added productivity and better performance. Research has found, instead, that workaholics overextend themselves and don’t allow time to recover their resources. They tend to work more, not smarter. They often find work that’s not necessary to feed their compulsion. They can be difficult teammates and set unrealistic timelines. Finally, she warns, workaholics are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviours that harm the organization.

So if you’re a workaholic, reconsider your instincts, and adjust. If you’re responsible for an organization, reconsider your instincts, and try to curb rather than encourage workaholism.

She points to studies of companies that opted for a four-day workweek, which found revenues increasing and turnover decreasing in the trial period when they were measured. That could be resulting from the Hawthorne Effect – people modifying their behaviour in a test period – but it’s intriguing. What contrary data do you have that workaholism is helping your organization?

She recommends starting to change by assessing the level of overwork in your organization and what is perpetuating it. Focus on three levels:

  • Organizational: What is driving the culture of overwork? What are the values and assumptions about working at the organization? Are people taking their allotted vacations? Is top leadership sending signals that discourage disconnection from work?
  • Job: What are the structures that encourage overwork, such as the technology people use, which might encourage or even demand 24-7 connection. Does the work flow require overwork? Are jobs designed to give individuals too much work? Is the organization too lean? And yes, are there too many meetings?
  • Individual: What are the qualities and characteristics of individuals within the organization who get recognized and rewarded, and does that encourage an overwork culture? Are people who work weekends promoted? Are people taking paid time off?

If that list makes you feel nervous, a Pandora’s path you don’t want to explore because the results will be unpleasant, maybe it’s even more necessary you do so. “At the end of the assessment, you’ll know just how deeply overwork is entrenched in your culture and, crucially, where some of the key drivers are coming from,” Prof. Clark says.

In seeking change, you want to move deliberately, treating it as a long process of incremental improvement, rather than attempting too much initially. As well, get input from employees rather than making it a top-down effort.

Lack of trust can derail your attempts at change. An example was the company that brought in the four-day workweek but found managers working from home on the fifth day in secret.

This is tricky stuff. Hard work is good, so overwork has become praiseworthy, despite its detrimental effects. Most people want to advance at work, and promotions seem linked to overwork. And shareholders want profits, which would seem to flow from intensified work effort. But Prof. Clark has found overwork increasing and given it’s unhealthy, including for organizations, and the link to productivity at the least questionable, it’s time to resist or even reverse the trend.


  • In Work Less: New Strategies for a Changing Workplace, Gatineau-based industrial relations writer Jon Peirce calls for government action to limit work hours and overtime. He also asks for grants so companies can study ways of increasing productivity while reducing work hours and governments to conduct such studies as well.
  • Beware of identity omissions, forms your organization asks people to fill out for demographic information that provide some options but misses some or many identity groups. People feel miffed, so err on the side of inclusivity, broadening the response formats you use so people can also choose more than one option, Cornell University professors Sean Fath and Devon Proudfoot advise.
  • Author James Clear divides problems into muddy puddles and leaky ceilings. Muddy puddles tend to come from ruminating and overthinking. The more you mess with them, the muddier they become, so leave them alone. Other problems are like leaky ceilings, getting worse if you leave them alone; act quickly.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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