Working to excess has never been viewed as particularly healthy – quite the opposite, in fact.
However, new research out of Simon Fraser University suggests it's not necessarily harmful if people are logging the extra hours by choice – whether out of professional pride, to launch a career, for the intellectual stimulation or because they simply love the job.
"Engagement is the key," said Lieke ten Brummelhuis, an assistant professor at SFU's Beedie School of Business and lead author of Beyond Nine to Five: Is Working to Excess Bad for Health? The study, co-written with Nancy Rothbard of the University of Pennsylvania and Benjamin Uhrich of the University of North Carolina Charlotte, was recently published in the Academy of Management Discoveries journal.
Their study of 763 Dutch employees of an international financial company found that long hours, per se, don't lead to adverse health outcomes among non-workaholics if their work behaviour is more a result of preference than compulsion. Workaholics who compulsively put in longer hours than necessary despite not liking their jobs were the most likely workers in the study group to have high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, putting them at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, the researchers found.
Engaged workaholics, on the other hand, "work excessively and compulsively, but also enjoy their work and report feeling vigorous, absorbed and dedicated while working."
This isn't to suggest that employers should boost work hours on the assumption that their hardest-working employees will happily take on even more, Prof. ten Brummelhuis hastened to add. (She defines excessive hours as 10 hours or more above the weekly average in any given market). But it does point to the buffering effect of job satisfaction and engaging work, particularly in occupations in which employees work long hours either by choice or necessity.
The study also underlines the importance of recovery time between demanding work stretches. "Workaholics are more likely to keep obsessing and worrying about work, even when they are not technically working … which may interfere with their ability to sleep," leading to distress and fatigue, the authors wrote.
"Non-workaholics may be better at switching off … After working extended hours, they may feel satisfied, sleep well and hence feel recovered the next morning," the researchers said. But they also need uninterrupted downtime between deadlines, Prof. ten Brummelhuis said in an interview.
At Vancouver-based accounting firm Manning Elliott, the hours typically extend beyond nine-to-five during peak work periods, managing partner Alden Aumann said. Employees sometimes work two or three long weeks before a lull, "and then they hit it again," he said in an interview.
"It's the nature of our business, quite frankly … Some people can't work that way." But the firm has no trouble attracting and retaining employees, who have considerable flexibility over when and where they do their work.
"It depends on your client deadline and who you are working with in that particular engagement. We don't time-clock punch; it doesn't make sense for us. The work occurs when you need it done."
His firm's approach to flexible work hours, time to recharge between assignments and work-life balance was recently featured on the Chartered Professional Accountants Canada website. "In public practice, we have a lot of peak load periods," Mr. Aumann told the CPA. "If a client needs it now, we find a way to do it."
Still, "you can't work at peak all the time," he said, and the firm's accountants are encouraged to take time off in their less-busy periods. Some of his employees are quite gung-ho and want to put in the most hours, Mr. Aumann said. He has gently intervened on a couple of occasions. "You have to kind of gently pull them back a little bit because they could burn themselves out without noticing it."
It's a delicate balancing act for managers, satisfying the desire of some of their most motivated employees for new challenging work while not overloading them, Prof. ten Brummelhuis said.