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When Work Becomes Bad For Employees’ Health

Nicole Klemp
Nicole Klemp

We all know the term workaholic. As a society, we often use it to describe someone who lives and breathes their job—often at the expense of other areas of their life. Some people feel a compulsion to work because they’re passionate about what they do and are energized by their jobs, but others are overworking themselves because they feel it’s what is expected of them in order to be successful.

In his podcast WorkLife, organizational psychologist Adam Grant discusses work culture trends and studies “how to make work not suck.” He recently interviewed Huffington Post cofounder, Arianna Huffington, about the dangers of letting work take over your life.

“In April 2007, I actually collapsed,” said Huffington. I had just gotten the news that I’d been picked as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. And as I came to—in my pool of blood, having broken my cheekbone—I literally thought to myself, oh so that’s what success looks like.” Doctors diagnosed Huffington with “civilizations disease” (otherwise known as burnout) and told her the only way to improve her health was to stop working so hard.

Americans are working themselves sick.

Health problems due to work stress have become such an epidemic in America, that the CDC has been studying its effects since the mid-90s. Their research reveals that one-fourth to one-third of U.S. workers report high levels of stress at work, and Americans spend 8 percent more time on the job than they did 20 years ago (47 hours per week on average).

In his book, Dying for a Paycheck, professor of organizational behavior, Jeffrey Pfeffer, says many modern management commonalities like long work hours, work-family conflict, and economic insecurity are toxic to employees and destroy their physical and emotional health. They also hurt engagement and productivity and increase turnover.

“Although employers are obviously concerned about health insurance costs and also employee absence, turnover, and productivity, and therefore attempt to improve these outcomes as they are affected by individual health, the focus of most wellness programs is too narrow to accomplish much,” writes Pfeffer. “The problem is that employers seldom consider the workplace itself and what occurs there as important causal factors affecting individual behavior.”

Business leaders often use the number of hours an employee works as a measure of their commitment to the organization. But employee dedication cannot be measured by the hours in which someone is clocking in and out, or their willingness to respond to an email on a Saturday afternoon. And putting in extra hours doesn’t necessarily add up to higher output. One study found that an increase in working time is accompanied by a decrease in per-hour productivity. Once annual working time exceeds 1,925 hours (approximately 37 hours per week), a one percent increase in working time leads to a .9 percent decrease in productivity.

Help employees set boundaries between work and life.

Since her collapse in 2007, Huffington has made major changes in both her work and life and has made her health a top priority. In 2016, she founded Thrive Global, a company that helps organizations tackle stress and burnout in the workplace. She now gets a full night’s sleep every night, prioritizes breaks throughout the day, and turns her phone off in the evenings. “I love work much more when I’ve taken time to recharge,” she said.

It’s up to business leaders to set realistic expectations for employees and to not reward unhealthy work behaviors. If you create a culture that encourages working overtime and answering emails on the weekend, employees will feel that’s the only way to succeed. This may pay off for achieving some short-term goals, but it isn’t sustainable for a healthy, engaged workforce.

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp—a project management and communications software company—believes it’s important to set boundaries between work and life and find ways to avoid distractions during work hours. “If you’re overworked and tired you make mistakes, and mistakes are costly,” says Fried. “If [companies] want people to be sharp and make fewer mistakes you can’t work them 60-70 hours a week.”

Find out how healthy your work culture is.

Your employees can be highly engaged and productive and boast a healthy work-life balance. The key is discovering what drives your teams and uncovering what may be standing in their way. Emplify measures the psychological state of engagement as a way to help leaders see the true commitment levels of their teams, and to identify any groups that may be at risk for burnout.

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