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Preventing Workaholism in the Office

A woman is sleeping on a desk in front of a computer.

​Samantha Martin, the founder and CEO of a New York City PR and marketing agency, knows what it's like to manage workaholic employees. In one case, an employee was always at her desk and the first to reply to communication at night and on weekends. She'd complain to her team that she was busy and that it was tough being a perfectionist, yet she never seemed to finish an assignment. This employee, Martin realized, was a workaholic, and she needed to step in and help the employee conquer her work addiction. 

"We were able to address the issue, get her on a more reasonable work track, and create boundaries for her with e-mail and replies after work on her personal time," Martin said. "We encouraged hobbies outside of work, and within a few months she was a different employee. She was able to participate in office banter and chatter, and she was less short-tempered."

Workaholism in the United States

Employees overextending themselves is a common workplace problem. According to one survey by The Vision Council, 48 percent of U.S. employees believe they are workaholics. Another survey by Time Off and GfK showed that Millennials are more likely than older workers to be "work martyrs," which means they put in more hours at the office and take less vacation time.    

The workaholic culture in the U.S. is strong, even though numerous studies show workaholism is detrimental to productivity. It breeds stress, and according to a Colonial Life study, 50 percent of employees lose one to five hours of productive time every week because of stress. Overworking can also cause major health problems, contributing to such mental and physical issues as anxiety, depression, heart attacks and strokes.

"Workaholism eventually leads to burnout," said Gina Curtis, the Detroit-based executive recruiting manager for JMJ Phillip Executive Search. "You always want your employees to be efficiently using their time instead of wearing themselves out by working too many hours. In addition, you want your employees to have a personal life and feel like they have something enjoyable to work for to maintain a work/life balance."

HR professionals and people managers have a responsibility to ensure employees are working hard but not succumbing to workaholic tendencies. To successfully carry this out, consider these tips for combating workaholism in the office.

Treat Employees Humanely

Humans are not robots, and they cannot work on a task endlessly. Diane Rosen, co-founder of Compass Consultants and an attorney with Ortoli Rosenstadt LLP in New York City, said managers can help employees end their workaholic tendencies—and stop themselves from unconsciously promoting such tendencies—by having compassion for their employees and imagining themselves in their employees' positions. "No more jokes that leaving at 10 p.m. is half a day," she cautioned.

Properly utilizing HR policies is also critical.

"HR policies that are not enforced are worse than having no policies at all," she added. "Employees feel exploited and dehumanized, and the organization is seen as phony and hypocritical, [which is] not good for retention."

Keep Employees Focused

Often, workaholics may not even be working on the right things. Carlos Hidalgo, author of The UnAmerican Dream: Finding Personal and Professional Happiness Establishing Work-Life Boundaries (VisumCx, 2019), said HR and managers need to keep employees' eyes on the target at all times.

"I have seen many individuals work hard on things that simply have no bearing on moving an organization forward," Hidalgo said. "Making sure there is a focus and understanding of what is needed is paramount." 

Cultivate Work/Life Balance

Work/life balance is a critical component of fighting workaholism, and it all starts with bosses taking the lead.

"Leadership sets the standards for acceptable behavior, so modeling a culture of 'work hard and recharge' is the best way to make sure your employees model the same behaviors," said Drew Fortin, senior vice president of sales and marketing at The Predictive Index in Boston.

Some practical ways that Fortin models work/life balance to his employees are never sending e-mail outside of work hours, checking his e-mail only once or twice a day on weekends, blocking off the hours before and after work to show that he is unavailable for meetings during those times, and recognizing when he's most productive.

"It's important to level-set on how and when you are most productive so you can make the most out of every day," he said. "If you are more productive in the evening, for instance, and your job allows for the flexibility, do your more regimented stuff in the morning—exercise, check e-mail, spend time with the family—so you can optimize for your productive hours."

According to Hidalgo, it's important to "create a culture where the addiction to work is not accepted and certainly not rewarded. Mandatory vacation time [and] assistance in boundary-setting are things that managers, executives and HR teams can do to assist an employee and create a culture of health."

Reward Hardworking Employees

If you notice employees becoming a workaholics, you should sit down with them individually, thank them for their hard work, and tell them to take time for themselves because you don't want them to burn out, Curtis said. Rewarding those employees and showing them that it's OK to relax may help them calm down.

"Give them a planned comp day, [like a] spa day or some type of activity, or tell them to come in late one day to show [your] appreciation for the long hours they have put in," she said.

Get Real with Workaholics

Be direct with employees, let them know they don't need to work extra hours, and ask them what specific tasks or projects are taking so much time, said Fortin.

"I think managers have a specific obligation to call direct reports out when they are overextending themselves or productivity seems to be waning," he said.

You could also inform the employees about the many benefits of having a better work/life balance, including an increase in creativity and the opportunity to foster a better work environment, said Martin.

"If left untreated, [workaholism] can lead to ill health, which will be more days off, mental health issues and other long-lasting problems," she explained. "Like any addiction, it must be recognized and treated with care and understanding. In the long run, overworking is not going to help you win the race."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a copywriter and editor based in Los Angeles who has written for New York Magazine, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and Legal Management Magazine.


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