Addicted to work

It’s not a new concept, but workaholism is getting out of hand across the globe. Here’s what managers need to know about overworked employees.

In the past six months, the word karoshi has been making headlines, splashed across Japan’s daily newspapers and talked about on the evening news. Since karoshi — which literally translates as “death from overwork” — entered the country’s lexicon back in the ’70s, there’s been a huge surge in the number of recorded occupational-related mortalities. In fact, overworking, and the stress caused by spending almost every waking hour at the office, has been blamed for thousands of fatal heart attacks and strokes in the past few decades. (The rate of karojisatsu — or “suicide by overwork” — has also been climbing.)

The karoshi phenomenon is so rampant today that lawsuits filed against companies by families who’ve lost loved ones to death from overwork have also jumped considerably. Take, for example, a case this past November in which a restaurateur in Tokyo was forced to pay 57.9-million yen (about $600,000) to the family of a 24-year-old manager who worked more than 190 hours of overtime each month in the seven months prior to hanging himself.

It’s cases like this — and the 2013 findings from the nation’s health, labour and welfare ministry that revealed nearly five million Japanese employees put in more than 60 hours at the office each week — that finally forced lawmakers to announce a workaholism prevention program late last year. This legislative action — which came into effect in March — aims to teach the public about the risks of workaholism and provide support to workers and organizations facing the issue. Some departments within the ministry have even started practising what they preach by putting a moratorium on working past 10 p.m. There’s also talk of forcing employees to take at least five vacation days a year to curb mental and physical illnesses; this comes after survey findings showed Japanese workers took less than half of their allotted vacation days in 2013.

If Canada adopted a comparable program to put the kibosh on working 24/7 (or close to it), Gwyneth James would find herself in a predicament. James is not only a partner at a small but busy accounting firm in Peterborough, Ont. (where she works full time), she’s also pursuing financial consulting in the little downtime she has. Besides her businesses, she volunteers on the boards of several local groups and associations, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Community Futures Development Corporation. Needless to say, it doesn’t surprise James when her sons call her a workaholic. “I am proud of how hard I work,” she says. “I don’t view being called a workaholic as an insult.”

The definition of “workaholic” is important here. Contrary to what many think, working hard, being diligent, motivated and productive isn’t workaholism. The term is actually bestowed upon people who work obsessively and compulsively at the expense of other things, such as spending time with friends and family, hobbies and relaxing. Laura Hambley, an organizational psychologist and consultant in Calgary, says workaholism is an addiction, though it’s not seen in the same light as other dependencies. “I would say it is different than smoking, drinking and gambling in that organizations tend to reward rather than scorn it, as they would, say, an alcoholic employee,” she says. “However, it is consistent with other addictions — it is a problem that impacts key areas of a person’s life.”

While workaholism is a much bigger problem in Japan, China and the US, for example, Canada isn’t far behind. According to the last General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 2010 (the study will be conducted again this year), a quarter of Canadian adults are self-described workaholics, including 31% of 35- to 44-year-olds and 28% of folks in the 45-to-55 set. The same study reported 36% of adults worry that they don’t spend enough time with family and friends, 29% admit they feel like they don’t have time for fun and 34% say they are constantly under stress trying to accomplish more than they can handle.

The addiction to work is certainly more common in some professions — including finance. Workaholism attracts folks who are “driven and competitive, and have an extremely high need for achievement, diligence, focus, conscientiousness and sometimes perfectionism,” says Hambley. When they’re not burning the midnight oil at the office, you’ll likely find them at home in front of their laptop. They expend too much energy, time and emotional attachment in all things work, which in theory probably doesn’t sound half bad to most managers. Some bosses are quick to praise the overworker — he or she is dedicated, answers emails on weekends and doesn’t take time off. This is the reason why workaholics receive kudos and even financial rewards from higher-ups, Hambley explains. “Workaholics feel a sense of accomplishment. These people thrive off the feeling of meeting another target and winning at work,” she says.

Besides karoshi, there are serious ramifications of an all-work, no-play existence for both the employee and the employer. “Workaholism does tend to damage relationships, as the workaholic ends up prioritizing work above all else. It’s not uncommon for these people to end up divorced, for example,” Hambley says. “The health impacts of workaholism are also significant, but because they manifest over the longer term, it’s easy for people to be in denial. One example is if work is prioritized over fitness, and healthy eating slips due to late nights at the office, longer-term chronic health issues can emerge.” A major consequence of health and personal issues is a decrease in productivity and absenteeism, since these problems inevitably spill into the workplace. Hambley says organizations are also seeing a rise in disability claims related to stress, putting employers who condone excessive overtime at an even greater risk. “Certain corporate cultures, such as large law firms, tend to reward workaholism, so the person not working long hours is the one scorned,” she says. “Other cultures, where work/life balance is valued, will negatively view workaholism. The peer group may make jabs at the overworkers or view them with disdain.”

As far as James is concerned — and despite what her kids say — she doesn’t fit the criteria of a true workaholic. She goes to the gym three times a week, curls once a week and does a good job of making time to relax with friends and family. “If the definition is being addicted to work, I may not qualify. What I’m addicted to is being busy and involved and feeling challenged and appreciated,” she says. “I’ll admit that I feel guilty about taking time away from work when I have things piling up and clients are counting on me. But there are cons to working so hard. I know there have been things I missed out on where my kids were concerned.” At this point, James has found a balance that works for her. “I think the drive to succeed needs to be managed carefully so, like any addiction, it doesn’t take over your whole life.”

Could you be a workaholic?

These warning signs might point to an unhealthy addiction to work:

  • Inability to keep work separate from or out of your personal life
  • Refusal to delegate at the office
  • Feeling that your identity and self-worth is directly related to your work
  • Feeling stressed when you’re not working
  • Working more hours than necessary to reduce feelings of anxiety or depression
  • Putting everything on the back burner in favour of work
  • Work has negatively affected your health