Why Workaholics Don’t Outperform Their Peers

housewife resting with crossed legs on sofa
Are you a workaholic? You might be excessively working because you think it improves performance. Find out why the opposite may be true!

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Workaholism is rampant in workplaces. Companies expect more from their employees, but employees’ time and energy is limited. So, employees often dip into personal time to complete work tasks. We have talked about how to tell if you’re a workaholic before. Now we highlight new research that suggests workaholics may cause more harm than good. Read more to learn about how being a workaholic may work against you in work and in life.

What is Workaholism?

First, it’s important to define key components of workaholism. One key component of being a workaholic is that you put in excessive work hours, which go beyond job requirements. In other words, workaholics spend more time working than their peers, even within the same job role. If you are frequently the colleague who is emailing team members earlier or later than they are working, or staying in the office longer than others, you may be the workaholic of your team!

Second, workaholics feel compelled to work when they are not, which can result in work permeating their thoughts and conversations. That is, even when they aren’t actively working, workaholics are often thinking about or talking about work. If the people around you would agree that they hear a lot about your work, or that you seem preoccupied with work during your free time, you might be a workaholic.

If you feel like you always have to be on the clock, you might be a workaholic!
If you feel like you always have to be on the clock, you might be a workaholic!

Does being a workaholic make you perform better?

Prior research seemed to assume that workaholism boosted job performance. Common conception follows this line of thinking as well. Many people believe that if you work excessively and barely disconnect, you will outperform your peers. However, new research suggests that this isn’t true. Instead, top performers slowly increase their work hours and compulsion to think about work over time, in response to positive feedback they have received.

Let’s break this down. If you’re a top performer in an entry level role, people give you positive feedback that suggests you are particularly good at producing valuable work. People want to do what is valued at work. So, in response to that feedback, you do more of what you’re being praised for. If you get praised for that as well, you continue to increase work hours and to deprioritize disconnection in the pursuit of garnering more positive feedback from others. If you get promoted, you assume it’s because you outworked everyone else.

But, there is a downside to this. Working excessive hours does not predict performance on the job. It does, however, cause burnout. This means that top performers, in an effort to remain at “the top”, are the most at risk for burnout without reaping the reward from their efforts.

Workaholics don't perform better, but they do burn out!
Workaholics don’t perform better, but they do burn out!

What can leaders do?

This research suggests that leaders can do two things. First, they can make it explicitly clear that they want employees to work smarter, not harder. While working hours do contribute to performance at reasonable levels, excessive working hours do not. If employees are working excessively, managers might discourage this behavior and help them to find ways to streamline their efforts, and to disconnect.

Second, leaders can stop promoting the misconception that working excessively drives performance. Instead, they might recognize that top performers might be at the highest risk for making this association. By role modeling a reasonable number of work hours, and disconnecting from work, leaders can show employees that they can get ahead without being workaholics.

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