As much as we like to brag about being too busy to breathe at work, we tend to think of actual workaholics as troubled souls. In our minds, they’re irrationally driven, pale, and pitiful. Solid heart attack candidates.
But there exists another type, according to a new study published in the Academy of Management: the workaholic who is also content and whose health is not jeopardized by working intensely. To understand how this is so, it helps to first know that workaholism is not a behavior, but a state of mind, says Nancy Rothbard, professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s coauthors.
Workaholics are anxious when they’re not working, and they think about their jobs constantly. Any number of factors could explain why—for some it might be pathological, or fed by destructive, unexamined beliefs. Whatever the reason, it often leads to putting in long hours, but it doesn’t have to: It’s possible for a person to work an average number of hours per week and still be a workaholic, because they’re living work in their mind.
Consider the sunnier cousin to workaholism, what researchers and HR folks call “engagement.” An engaged person at work feels energized by what they’re doing, senses they have a certain amount of impact, and wakes up in the morning eager to open their laptop and report for duty. Employers want engaged employees because they’re happier, more creative, and more productive. They’re also healthier.
Although it sounds oxymoronic, it’s possible to be both engaged and a workaholic, says Rothbard. It just means you’re totally obsessed with work in a way that’s invigorating, rather than depleting. And that can make a difference to your physiological wellbeing.
To find out where you stand, take our two-minute quiz, created with condensed versions of standard tests researchers use to detect workaholics and engaged employees. Just slide the arrows or click to record your answer. Then read on to learn about the important health implications of workaholism.
In their analysis of surveys and health data from more than 700 employees at an international consulting firm, Rothbard and her team found that people who are both workaholics and highly engaged employees were less likely to show signs of metabolic syndrome, which is marked by a cluster of symptoms: high blood sugar levels, excess weight around the waist, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and insulin resistance. A person’s attitude towards work is what made the difference, says Rothbard, as the study controlled for other factors. This may explain why previous studies on what working long hours does to the body were not always consistent: no one had looked at engagement and workaholism in concert this way.
The paper, coauthored with researchers at Simon Fraser University and the University of North Carolina, is also first to use biomarkers to assess whether someone classified as a workaholic is also courting metabolic syndrome. Previous studies relied on subjects simply reporting that they didn’t feel well, which might be natural when you’re working a lot, says Rothbard.
There may be other reasons to envy the “engaged” worker, too. They report having more family and coworker support, better work-life balance, and stronger time management and communication skills than their checked-out counterparts.
Rothbard couldn’t say whether there was a causal relationship between those strengths and a person’s reduced chance of developing metabolic syndrome, nor which came first—the support structures, the engaging job, or the personality that sought and nurtured both. She can’t even say for sure that engaged employees are objectively better communicators, or are more efficient with their time. “Either they perceive the world this way, or they actually have these things,” she says. “I can’t tell you which one it is, but they have a very different experience.”
It’s unclear from the research whether an engaged worker can become a workaholic and vice versa, or whether some people spend their careers ricocheting back and forth between these categories.
Age does matter, however. A sub-analysis of the data showed that non-engaged workaholics under age 40 were less likely to show biomarkers for metabolic syndrome. Young people, as you may have suspected, are more likely to soldier through long work weeks without ill effect.
However, what the medical professionals would tell you, says Rothbard, is that the protection offered by youthfulness is temporary. The changes in the body that lead to metabolic syndrome take years to develop, and they’re invisible—until they’re not.