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business school research

According to a Beedie-led study, simply working long hours, without the inner compulsive drive to work hard, was not associated with impaired health outcomes.Getty Images

The Globe's bimonthly report on research from business schools.

A British Columbia researcher has good news for workaholics who worry their excessive behaviour may be harmful to their health.

It all depends on whether you're driven to overwork by compulsion or passion, according to Lieke ten Brummelhuis, assistant professor of management at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Vancouver and lead author of a new study examining work habits published in the Academy of Management Discoveries.

It's widely accepted that the drive to put in grinding hours on the job can come at a cost of serious medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

But Dr. ten Brummelhuis has determined that not all workaholics face the same level of risk to their physical and mental well-being.

Rather, she says in an e-mail, "It's important for employees to reflect on the reason why they work so hard."

The study draws from a survey of nearly 1,300 workers at an international consulting company. Employee work hours were examined alongside a questionnaire that probed respondents' engagement on the job, their level of workaholism and relative health. A portion of the workers surveyed – more than 750 people – also underwent medical screenings to test for evidence of stress-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

The researchers found that workaholics with above-average engagement with their job reported similar health complaints to those with low engagement – including depressive feelings, sleep problems, headaches and sore muscles.

Critically, though, the complaints of engaged workaholics don't escalate into severe health risks, suggesting that these workers have more active coping mechanisms in place to reduce stress before health problems get really severe.

"Engaged employees found more support at home, but also from their co-workers and supervisors. They also had better time management and communication skills," says Dr. ten Brummelhuis.

The research notes a clear distinction between excessive work behaviour (working long hours) and the cognitive component of working to excess (workaholism). According to the study, simply working long hours, without the inner compulsive drive to work hard, was not associated with impaired health outcomes.

"This means that, in theory, it is possible to work 60 hours a week, but to stay healthy," says Dr. ten Brummelhuis.

However, she adds, it's likely that working long hours go hand in hand with an inner compulsive drive to work hard. "There may only be a few lucky people who are able to work a long day, go home, disconnect from work entirely, sleep well and work another 10 to 12 hours the next day without ruminating much about work," she says.

The study is co-authored Nancy Rothbard of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Benjamin Uhrich of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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