Does this person sound familiar to you? They think a 60-hour workweek is slacking off and an 80-hour week is something to be proud of, they never take PTO, and they let their managers, colleagues, clients know they’re available to take a call or reply to an email or text anytime, anywhere. Meet the workaholic — a label often worn as a badge of honor. Although many companies value them (after all, workaholics do tend to be highly productive), workaholism is a double-edged sword: You get high productivity but decreased performance, thanks to exhaustion, added stress, and other factors. 

What we mean by “workaholic“ and “workaholism”

Workaholism is defined as “feeling compelled or driven to work because of internal pressures, having persistent and frequent thoughts about work when not working, and working beyond what is reasonably expected.” 

In the last few years, workaholism has received greater attention. One recent study found that “workaholism increases performance through increased workload, but also decreases performance through increased emotional exhaustion.” The reason is that workaholics don’t simply “work too much.” They also:

  • Cannot disengage from work, mentally or physically
  • Experience prolonged activation of their nervous systems and stress responses, which eventually take their toll on the body
  • Fail to take the after-work recovery time that is necessary to prevent fatigue 

Everyone around the workaholic suffers

These negative consequences extend beyond the individual — their relationships suffer too, in what’s called the “spillover” effect. The compulsive nature of workaholism can spill over from work to home, preventing workaholics from physically and mentally disengaging from work. The result: They devote more time and energy to work than to family and friends

Another study found that one of the key factors in creating these negative effects on health and relationships is someone’s anticipated workload. If someone goes into work believing they will have a lot to do, then they will likely have higher levels of compulsive feelings and thoughts toward their work. This in turn will lead to increased exhaustion, fatigue, and spillover. 

What HR can do

How can companies help their workaholic employees while still valuing their contributions? 

  1. Help employees prioritize their daily tasks.
  2. Encourage employees to avoid taking work home.
  3. Create a work environment that advocates work-life balance by promoting exercise, keeping social commitments, taking PTO, and spending time with family and friends.
  4. Urge employees to take breaks throughout the day — perhaps build in time for all team members to put down work and focus on self-care.
  5. Develop a collaborative environment that provides employees with opportunities to delegate work, to have open communication with their supervisors and colleagues, and to establish boundaries that can reduce distractions. 
  6. If a team member is truly struggling, encourage them to seek outside help in the form of counseling or other forms of intervention

The workaholic might have good intentions, but workaholism does more harm than good — to the individual and to the organization. Finding ways to channel those intentions into a more balanced work-life will reap significant benefits for all.