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Managers can send mixed message by touting work/life balance but rewarding late hours
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It comes, it goes, and few Americans probably
“It” is National Workaholics Day—yes, a
holiday of sorts, memorialized every July 5.
Is it celebrated? Not really. It’s more of a
sober reminder that workaholism, like any addiction, can jeopardize health,
home lives and—eventually—productivity and a company’s bottom line.
Except that workaholism, unlike other
addictions, is not only socially acceptable, it’s often admired, emulated and
rewarded by higher pay and promotions. All of which sends a pretty mixed
message to employees who persistently hear from managers about the importance
of “work-/life balance” and unplugging from work on the weekends.
“If the employer really wants to support
work/life balance, then a clear message must come from the top and permeate the
culture,” said Carole Richter, principal of Denver-based HR Consulting LLC. “If
someone is always working late, weekends and on vacation, then [the company]
should hire more employees to distribute the workload. Communicate, not just to
the workaholic but to the entire organization, that balance is important.”
Workaholic or Hard Worker?
How do you spot the workaholic? The
Workaholics Anonymous websitehas a 20-question
that includes these queries:
HolidayInsights.com, a website with
information about holidays around the world, notes that the workaholic “works
all of the time ... even during holidays. While just about everyone is enjoying
[the holiday], the workaholic is off working on some project. He can't relax.
It's not in his nature. He's addicted to work.”
A workaholic is someone who chooses to—rather
than has to—work a lot and is always preoccupied by occupational duties or
thinking about work, “typically at the expense of other aspects of his or her
life,” said Karen Miller, human resources and corporate culture expert
for Seamless Corporate Accounts, an online food-ordering and billing service.“Workaholics tend to lose track of time on the job and feel
compelled to keep working, regardless if the extra work is necessary or will
result in a critical output.”
Nearly half (48 percent) of 1,200
professionals said they work late nights and weekends some or all of the time,
according to a March 2014 survey by Seamless Corporate Accounts. The survey found that which city an employee
lives in plays a large role in the amount of hours worked. Sixty-one percent of
New Yorkers reported working more than 40 hours a week, compared with the
national average of 53 percent. Workers in San Francisco and Boston tied for
working the fewest hours, with only 51 percent of respondents working more than
40 hours per week.
A September 2013 poll
asked employees if they worked longer hours than they did five years ago, and
more than two-thirds responded “yes, a great deal.” Advances in technology have
facilitated flexibility, Miller said, but also have added the expectation of
additional work when away from the office—and accelerated the pace of work such
that even working the same hours can feel more challenging. “This new
flexibility often makes it difficult for professionals to step away and
Detrimental to Health and Home
Bryan Robinson, author
of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and
Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them (New York University Press,
2007), points out in his book that in workaholic marriages, couples tend to be
emotionally distant from each other, and there are often thoughts of separation
The divorce rate is twice the national average
when one person in the relationship is a workaholic, according to a 1999 study
by Robinson, a retired professor from the University of North Carolina at
An August 2013 Kansas
State University study found that workaholics—defined as those who worked more than 50
hours a week—were more likely to skip meals, to experience reduced physical and
mental well-being, and to report depression more often than those who worked
fewer hours a week.
“It is a risk to place so much responsibility on these individuals,” Richter
said. “[Companies] are at risk of losing intellectual property and having their
operations affected if the person leaves, falls ill or has other demands that
make them reprioritize their attention. And while workaholics can keep up a
demanding pace for a very long time, many become disillusioned by a lack of
appreciation from employers or, over time, how the work affects their ability
to have a healthy personal life.”
No More Mixed Messages
So what are managers to do? Stop rewarding
people for working too hard? Make an example of the executive who works long
hours and sends e-mails on weekends?
That’s not likely to happen, Miller
acknowledged, noting that workaholics are not only frequently rewarded with
higher pay and promotions, they can also make those around them feel guilty,
underachieving or competitive, which can spread the addiction through a
workplace, leaving not just one but many employees fatigued, stressed and
“When workaholics are putting in extra hours,
they can make co-workers feel as if they, too, must put in long hours in order
to be successful,” Miller said. “This is particularly true when the workaholic
is a manager.”
Managers should be observant of those who may
be on the road to burnout. If long hours are ongoing, examine other employees’
workloads and shift responsibilities to provide better support to those who are
stretched especially thin.
“Anytime work is affecting one’s health or
personal life, we should be working with the employee… to find out why,”
Richter said. “Determine if the problem is situational or systemic. I think
those that have experienced the risks of placing too many demands on too few
people really want to begin the conversation within their organizations.”
Miller said companies can also provide
time-management training and encourage supervisors to limit nonessential
meetings and administrative tasks.
“The most effective way to combat the
challenges related to overworked employees is to help employees work more
efficiently during regular hours,” she said.
When Long Hours Can’t Be Helped
There will be projects and deadlines that
require longer-than-normal hours and, in those cases, Miller said, supervisors
should demonstrate that they value the extra work as “above and beyond”—not a
routine part of the job. Additional ways to lessen the burden on employees
during times of increased work:
Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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